ALAN PEARS. My Climate Action Conundrum – beyond weak targets and Kyoto carryovers

Jan 8, 2020

I’m all for being a team player. I pay taxes to help run our economy and society. I do volunteer work to support a caring society. But when a key player in the team lets us down, I feel torn. Do I keep contributing, because most people are still working together? Do I call the laggard out and pursue alternatives that are not undermined by the failure of one player? Or a bit of both? My carbon accounting conundrum is simple: if I save energy, invest in solar or take other emission-reducing actions, my personal emissions go down. But Australia’s, and global emissions don’t.

My efforts leave more space within Australia’s international commitment for others to emit more greenhouse gases, and for the government to make less effort by free-riding.

Think of Australia’s international commitment as a pie. Our Paris commitment of a 26% reduction in emissions relative to 2005 over the decade from 2021 to 2030 means Australia can emit around 4800 million tonnes of emissions over that period: that’s the pie. If I cut my emissions, that does not change the size of this emission pie: only government cancelling international permits and agreeing to a tougher target can do that. So I leave more pie for others to emit more.

I face a dilemma: if I cut my emissions and support well-intentioned businesses that cut theirs, I am making it easier for a recalcitrant government to claim it is ‘on-track’ to meet its weak Paris commitment, while taking little action and actually opposing measures that have strong community support. And others can emit more, using the piece of the emission pie that I have freed up. Even worse, senior federal ministers berate state governments when they try to do more, or when there are any hiccups in state emission reduction strategies.

This situation has existed under previous international agreements, and applies to all participating countries. Yet it has rarely been discussed. I put this down to a few causes.

First, public concern about serious climate impacts has historically been more ‘intellectual’ than tangible. Extreme weather events and other visible changes around the world have only recently increased recognition of the traumatic and pervasive impacts of climate change.

Second, until recently, most people have believed that actions of governments have been strong enough for us to accept that our governments have been doing their share of leading emission reduction. We could all see ourselves as part of a national team contributing our share to a global challenge. But Greta Thunberg and others have ‘called out’ governments around the world. Australia has been clearly exposed as a laggard and, indeed, one of few countries actively undermining global action.

Third, the detail of carbon accounting, allocation of credit for action, and climate policy more broadly, is complicated. Very few people really understand how it works. Here is my attempt to explain the situation.

The latest government projections (see ) estimate that present actions combined with underlying trends (such as a shift to renewable energy and lower economic growth), a few minor policy measures, with use of our dodgy Kyoto ‘carryover credits’ could see us easily achieve our 2030 Paris commitment.

Our Paris commitment does not mean Australia’s emissions in 2030 must be 26% below our 2005 emissions. According to DoEE (Figure 29), over the period from 2021 to 2030 we must emit about 1330 million tonnes of emissions less than ten times our 2005 emissions of 611 Mt (ie 6110 Mt). The latest baseline projection suggests we will achieve 937 Mt reduction under present and planned policies, leaving only 392 Mt further cumulative reduction needed over 2012-2030. Playing accounting games by using the 411 Mt Kyoto carryover would lead to ‘over-achievement’ of the Paris commitment by almost 20 Mt.

This would leave Australia’s 2030 annual emissions at 511 Mt, well above a 26% reduction by that year. And way off-track to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

If DoEE’s ‘low growth’ projection (one of five scenarios in Figure 26 of DoEE’s projections report) occurred, we would come close to meeting our Paris commitment without even needing carryover credits. Combining the ‘low growth’ scenario with discredited Kyoto carryover would allow the government to meet a 30% Paris target without much effort. This may explain recent statements from Minister Taylor (see ‘Australia could hit climate targets without Kyoto credits, Aust Financial Review, 17/12/19). It could also allow the government to announce a ‘stronger’ target near the next election, undermining the credibility of Labor, Greens and climate analysts.

So what does a responsible Australian do? My personal strategy includes:

  • Continue to cut my personal emissions (which in many cases saves me money I can use to buy offsets), and support businesses that are cutting their emissions while investing in superannuation funds that invest in businesses that are part of the emission reduction industry and are cutting their emissions. This builds our future capacity to keep cutting emissions while growing our economy, and undermines resistance to stronger targets
  • Buy and surrender lots of carbon offsets from credible, internationally tradable projects (the National Carbon Offsets Standard website provides useful guidelines). I buy a mix of expensive (eg Gold Standard) and cheap offsets, and select projects that deliver worthwhile local social, economic and environmental benefits in developing countries. And I give offsets as presents to friends and family.
  • Work with businesses, community groups and state governments to accelerate technology innovation and community action
  • Advocate for introduction of a transparent, public registry where voluntary emission reductions by state and local governments, individuals and businesses can be certified and aggregated, ready for the day when the Australian government adopts my next measure
  • Advocate for the Australian government to surrender an international carbon permit for each certified tonne of voluntary emission reduction taken by Australians (and their state governments) beyond their fair share of Australia’s overall international commitment. No longer could the Australian government ‘free ride’ on the good will of Australians.
  • Advocate for Australia to make a globally responsible 2030 Paris commitment of 50-60% reduction (see ) – this would require both strong local action and purchase of international offsets.

At least this gives me a positive path forward.

Alan Pears AM has worked on clean energy and climate policy for several decades. His work spans all sectors of the economy, ranging from practical site-level projects to program development and implementation, policy analysis and education. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University and a Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College


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