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For all the noise surrounding Scott Morrison’s supposed shift on climate targets, his changes are actually insignificant. But there is a straightforward, three-point path to cut Australia’s emissions by 2030 – if only there were the political will. By Mike Seccombe.

The three-point plan Morrison needs to halve 2030 emissions

Scott Morrison speaks to Barnaby Joyce during question time in Parliament House in Canberra this week.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

If the laws of physics applied in politics, you would think something big had been happening in federal parliament over the past couple of weeks.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, says Newton’s third law of motion. So the huge reaction to Scott Morrison’s evolving position on climate policy must mean he’s making a huge move, right?

Wrong. While there’s no doubting the magnitude of the reaction – furious members of the National Party warning things “will get ugly” within the Coalition if Morrison changes policy, warnings from big business that things will get ugly if he doesn’t, suggestions the Coalition could split, and gleeful, hypocritical baiting of the government by a Labor opposition that has not announced its own climate policy – the action that caused it was tiny.

The impetus was the suggestion that Morrison might agree, at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, COP26, to adopt a target for Australia to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This would not be legislated, and it would not involve any greater interim target than the one Tony Abbott signed up to in Paris in 2015, of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030, compared with 2005.

Which, says Andrew Blakers, professor of engineering at the Australian National University and one of the world’s leading experts in renewable energy technologies, makes Morrison’s much-publicised shift “entirely insignificant”.

Simply nominating net-zero emissions in 29 years’ time means nothing much, absent a detailed commitment to the steps that must be taken to get there, he says.

“I mean, I can announce that I’m going to be a billionaire in 2050. And I’ll work out how to do it when I get to 2049. It’s meaningless.”

There is simply no way we’ll meet the global goal set in Paris, of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees, unless big commitments are made right now and big emissions reductions are made this decade.

“We need an announced target, a hard, onerous target of 50 or 60 per cent – let’s say 50 per cent, which matches the US target – by 2030,” says Blakers.

“That’s nine years away. We are not going to be able to wing this. We actually will need a plan.”

Morrison claims to have a plan. He constantly reassures us of this. In just one answer in question time on Tuesday, he said the word “plan” nine times in the course of a couple of minutes. But he offered no detail at all about what it is.

Blakers, in contrast, is very specific. And while the plan he offers is big, it’s also pretty simple.

In order to halve our emissions, and bring Australia broadly into line with the 2030 targets of comparable developed nations such as the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union members, we would need to tackle the top three sources of Australia’s emissions first.

They are electricity generation, which makes up 34 per cent of total emissions; heating from burning fossil fuels in homes and factories, which is 20 per cent; and transport, which is 18 per cent.

“That implies that we’re going to get to around about 90 per cent renewable electricity in 2030, which requires us to close most of the remaining coal power stations,” says Blakers.

“Then we absolutely have to start on electrifying transport by 2027, so that by 2030 a quarter of the cars are electric. And we have to stop like-for-like replacement of gas heaters by 2027, so that a quarter of them are electric by 2030.”

All this could be done at minimal cost and inconvenience, he says. “It’s very straightforward.”

That 50 per cent reduction by 2030 would rise to about 80 per cent later that decade, as the remaining fossil fuel-powered generators, vehicles and appliances were replaced.

There are other sources of emissions that are harder to deal with, such as aviation, chemicals, cement and metals manufacturing and agriculture, but by dealing with the big three easy ones we buy ourselves time to come up with solutions, Blakers says.

No doubt some of what he advocates will be politically difficult. For example, his projections require that “we clamp down hard on any more land-clearing”, and that there be no new sources of emissions, such as from fossil fuel mining. You can’t ask households and industry to cut emissions, he says, while simultaneously allowing “lots more leakage of methane from fracking the Beetaloo Basin. That just won’t work.”

Morrison, however, sees no inconsistency between expanding the fossil fuel industry and reducing emissions. This week, in reply to a question in parliament about setting a net-zero target, he said: “We have got big resources projects happening around the country, we are seeing our LNG [liquefied natural gas] industry going from strength to strength, being world-leading. At the same time, our policies are reducing emissions. Outcomes count. Not broad rhetorical statements from politicians. Outcomes count.”

According to leaked documents published by the BBC this week, Australia pushed UN scientists to remove references to fossil fuel lobbyists from reports and joined Saudi Arabia and Japan in urging the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.

But the inevitable outcome of more fossil fuel extraction is more global heating. The International Energy Agency in its definitive “road map” to net zero, released in May, was categorical. In order to give the world an “even chance” of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, it said, necessary actions included “from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects…”

The Morrison government not only continues to approve new developments – three major coal projects have been ticked off by Environment Minister Sussan Ley in recent weeks – it encourages them with financial assistance, such as the $50 million Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program.

All up, the federal government provides tens of billions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry. In the 2020-21 budget alone, according to analysis by The Australia Institute, it gave $9.1 billion of assistance in the form of tax breaks, subsidies for exploration, grants for infrastructure and money directed to research and development for “a long-time government favourite technology: carbon capture and storage (CCS)”.

In fairness it should be noted the Morrison government is far from alone in propping up dirty energy with public money. State and territory governments of both persuasions, with the recent exceptions of the ACT and Tasmania, also spend billions.

So do other nations. A UN report released this week, entitled “The Production Gap”, found that since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s 20 richest nations had spent some $US300 billion funding fossil fuels. The data showed the world’s governments still plan to produce almost three times as much fossil fuel as is consistent with limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees, and about twice as much as is consistent with 2 degrees.

Australia is not a small player in the energy game. We are the third-biggest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. If the emissions from our exports were added to those from our domestic use, we would rank sixth in the world as a carbon polluter.

Both Labor and the Coalition remain committed to fossil fuel expansion. Fortunately for the government’s claims about meeting climate targets, the emissions from the combustion of Australian-produced fuels in other countries are counted against them, not us.

While this might make sense in terms of carbon accounting, says Professor Will Steffen, chemist and councillor with the Australian Climate Council, “the elephant in the room is that we’re still proposing to open up more gas, open up more coal for export. And, of course, the atmosphere doesn’t care where this stuff is burnt. It’s going to affect the climate just as much over in India as it does in Australia.”

Morrison’s oft-repeated slogan that the climate crisis will be solved with “technology, not taxes” is misleading in several ways. First, because he uses it as a stick to beat the Labor opposition, when Labor no longer proposes any form of carbon tax. And second, because the technology most commonly alluded to is carbon capture and storage, which is particularly controversial and largely unproved. -The principal current use for carbon capture and storage around the world is for what is called enhanced oil recovery. Oil companies capture carbon emissions and inject them back underground to force up more oil. The Morrison government sees it as potentially useful in making hydrogen – an energy source that produces no greenhouse emissions when burned – from “natural” gas.

But carbon capture and storage is expensive and does not capture all emissions from the process. Also, there is another, completely emissions-free way of producing hydrogen – by splitting water molecules using renewable energy.

Australia’s richest man, Andrew Forrest, is betting big money on the latter technology, and more far-sighted politicians are backing that vision. Only a couple of weeks ago the New South Wales government announced a program to provide up to $3 billion in incentives for the production of this green hydrogen. But the Morrison government remains resistant.

Still, this is not the issue. As Andrew Blakers says, nascent technologies such as green hydrogen, while desirable, are not needed to get Australia’s greenhouse emissions down by 50 per cent or more by 2030. Nor is carbon capture, nor any new taxes, nor a “gas-led recovery”.

It can be done with existing technology, simply by switching power generation to renewables, and then using that clean energy to power vehicles and appliances that currently use fossil fuels.

Given the rapidly falling costs of renewables, this “electrify everything” approach would come with major financial benefits for consumers. As The Saturday Paper reported a couple of weeks ago, another world expert on sustainable energy policy and an adviser to the Biden administration, Saul Griffith, calculates that Australia’s 10 million households would save an average $5000 to $6000 a year by having rooftop solar, electric cars, electric cookers and water heaters, and space heating and cooling.

The third and biggest way in which Morrison’s “technology, not taxes” line is deceptive is that it pretends our taxes are not already funding the government’s modest efforts at reducing emissions. When it abolished Labor’s carbon price, the Abbott government substituted a regime by which polluters are paid to pollute less. Variants of the scheme have gone by various names – Direct Action, the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Climate Solutions Fund – and the government has spent billions on it.

The most succinct and cynical description of the shift from Gillard’s carbon-pricing scheme to the current model was given to the ABC’s business editor, Ian Verrender, by an unnamed government minister a few years back.

“The difference between Labor’s policy and ours is that Julia Gillard introduced a scheme where big polluters paid Australian taxpayers,” the minister said. “Tony changed it so that Australian taxpayers pay big polluters.”

In summary, the federal government is spending billions of taxpayer dollars on subsidising the fossil fuel industry to exacerbate climate change, and billions more to other polluters to mitigate climate change. So much for technology, not taxes.

Those who understand the urgency of addressing climate change and the inadequacy of current policy are impatient with slogans and platitudes.

“It’s very easy to say ‘net zero by 2050’,” says Steffen. “Why do you think we have more than 100 countries making that pledge? Some of them are probably genuine, but many of them, at least their leaders, certainly won’t be around in 2050.

“The real focus needs to be on 2030. And globally, we’ve got to get about a 50 per cent emission reduction by then, to have a good shot at keeping temperature below two [degrees of warming].”

Cumulative emissions are what counts, says Steffen. With every year that passes on our current trajectory, the greater the future reduction task.

“If we do bugger-all to 2030, and other countries don’t do much either, it won’t matter if you get to net zero by 2050,” he says. The damage already will have been done.

But the prime minister has set no target for 2030 beyond what Tony Abbott did in Paris, and continues to play word games around 2050. Which is odd, because Australia is actually on track to beat 26-28 per cent, little thanks to the federal government. All the states and territories have set a 2050 net-zero target and more ambitious interim goals.

“I’ve seen estimates that if you just look at what the states are pledging to do, and in fact are doing, we could get close to a 40 per cent reduction by 2030,” Steffen says. “It’s the sub-national jurisdictions which are really doing the heavy lifting that deserves the credit. Not the federal government.”

Labor went to the last election promising to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. After it lost, the new leader, Anthony Albanese, called that a “mistake”.

In reality, it was very much at the low end of what was possible and necessary, but the Coalition campaigned ruthlessly against it on the basis of cost. Morrison’s campaign was ably assisted by the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, who called the Labor policy “economy-wrecking”.

At this election, according to some analysts, Morrison is hoping to do the same. Writing in The Australian this week, Simon Benson noted that the prime minister wants to make a 2030 reduction target the “battleground” of the next election and “desperately needs Albanese to outbid him … the government’s entire political strategy depends on it”.

But times have changed, fast. There now is broad acceptance, even among some in the government, that the costs of inaction are far greater than those of action.

There is a wealth of authoritative data, from the UN, the International Energy Agency, and other experts such as those quoted here, that a reduction of 50 per cent or more by 2030 would not only be good for the climate but also for the economy.

Even the BCA no longer sees a more ambitious target as economy-wrecking. A couple of weeks ago, it called for a 46-50 per cent 2030 target on a path to net zero.

Zali Steggall, the independent MP who defeated Tony Abbott at the 2019 election, currently has a bill set for debate modelled on the regime enacted by the Tory government in Britain, including a target of 60 per cent reductions by 2030.

Changes of such magnitude no longer seem radical, rather necessary and desirable.

Yet Scott Morrison is stuck in an ugly fight with a handful of Nationals on the threshold question of net zero by 2050 – a commitment that, as their leader, Barnaby Joyce, said this week, must not be underpinned by legislation, because that would mean they were “locked in” to action.

There is little doubt that in the end Morrison will offer sufficient sweeteners to the Nationals to win their support for rhetorical change. But as for real, substantive change, all the sound and fury of the past couple of weeks appears likely to signify essentially nothing.

If the laws of physics applied to politics, the one most applicable to the Morrison government on climate change would be Newton’s first law: the law of inertia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Target practice".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.