ALAN PEARS. The Politics of Confusion on Achieving the Paris Commitment

Feb 20, 2019

Will Australia meet the government’s Paris climate commitment? Experts disagree, while the government avoids explaining exactly how it will achieve its goal. This creates confusion and conflict, which suits the government in the lead-up to the election. Lack of information and widespread disruptive change mean it is not yet possible to make a definitive judgement. The government must, as a matter of urgency, explain in detail the assumptions, policies and expected outcomes underpinning its claim that it will meet the 2030 Paris commitment ‘at a canter’.

In recent months, there has been widespread confusion and debate on whether Australia might meet the Coalition government’s Paris commitment of a 26-28% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 relative to 2005.

The Prime Minister, ministers and MPs have repeatedly declared that the commitment will be met ‘at a canter’. Many experts and august organisations such as the OECD disagree. But some experts think the goal is achievable.

The core issue here is that the government has not published detailed explanation of how the 2030 commitment would be achieved. Without this information, it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion on the effectiveness and adequacy of climate policy. What we do know is that, if Australia does achieve the present Paris commitment, it will be in spite of, not because of, our national government’s efforts, many of which have undermined an effective climate response.

It suits the government to maintain this lack of information and atmosphere of confusion and disagreement among experts. This avoids detailed analysis that may expose distortions, reveal the kinds of policy measures it expects to have to introduce, or setting performance criteria against which outcomes from present policies could be judged. It also contains conflict within the party, as deniers would object to even weak policy measures while moderates lobby for stronger action. It also allows the government to continue to attack Labor and Greens policies proposing more aggressive action and stronger commitments.

In a recent article I proposed that the Government’s Paris commitment might be achieved if two conditions were met. This would be the outcome if the emissions trajectory met (or came close to) the government’s ‘low’ emission scenario in Figure 15 of the DoEE Projections report, and the government was able to use the 367 Mt CO2e of credits from ‘over-achievement’ on our targets in previous commitment periods.

Our weak Paris commitment does not meet either our global responsibilities or science-based estimates of what we need to achieve. But the government could, according to the ‘letter of the law’, claim success on climate policy. And it only has to maintain its strategy of confusion and conflict until the May election.

Attempts to use ‘overachievement’ relative to past embarrassingly weak commitments are contentious. If achievement of the Paris commitment does rely on the DoEE ‘low’ scenario, it could complicate life for the Coalition. An overview on page 35 states that it relies heavily on AEMO’s ‘slow’ scenario [see p.38]. Relative to the baseline scenario, this has lower economic and population growth and lower industrial activity, including plant closures, lower exports and lower metal export prices. This could have divisive budget and policy implications.

What of the debate among experts? Numerous analysts have challenged the credibility of the government’s performance and the likelihood of meeting its Paris commitment. Much of the focus has been on the government’s baseline scenario, and its lack of realism. On one hand, many have pointed to the astounding growth of renewable electricity generation – due to state government targets, business and community investment in renewables, innovative financing models and rapid innovation that is driving down costs. Others have questioned potential understatement of the impacts of land clearing. Argument over a demonstrably unrealistic scenario seems unproductive.

ANU researchers recently published a research note suggesting that renewable energy alone could allow the government to meet its Paris commitment. This provoked a storm of criticism. However, critics and ANU researchers may be at cross-purposes. One critique pointed out that, for the electricity sector, which produces about a third of Australia’s emissions, to meet the Paris commitment through renewable electricity alone would require almost complete decarbonisation of electricity supply by 2030.

My reading of the ANU research suggests another interpretation. Renewable electricity could also moderate emissions from transport (e.g. through electric vehicles), industrial energy (e.g. replacing gas with high efficiency electric process technologies) and some industrial process emissions (e.g. using hydrogen in steel production). So, the ANU researchers considered emissions across about 70% of our present emission inventory. But their proposals may require strong national policy intervention – or strong action by other agents to leverage off the existing seeds of transformation.

I work on energy efficiency and energy productivity, from individual sites to high level policy. In my view, debate has failed to recognise astounding changes being driven by improving technologies, virtualisation of services, industry 4.0 (flexible, smart, connected, modularised and decentralised demand-side energy solutions). We are just beginning to use data analytics to unearth enormous energy waste from present practices, and to mobilise modern technologies and practices to reduce them. So, it is possible that Australia (and other economies) could achieve very large reductions in carbon emissions while capturing economic productivity and welfare benefits. Present policies fall far short of driving this change.

The jury is still out as to whether Australia can meet the Coalition government’s Paris commitment, or achieve far larger emission reductions consistent with our global responsibility and climate science. The outcome will depend on many factors, including the actions of state and local governments, businesses, communities and households, each responding to different signals and pressures. Whoever leads the nation will need to defuse the power of climate deniers and powerful interest groups, while implementing creative, transformative and collaborative policies.

In the short term, the Coalition government must publish a detailed explanation of exactly how it plans to achieve its Paris commitment, including all assumptions, policies and actions. Resources must be allocated so a range of experts and specialists can forensically analyse this, and report to the community. This work should also explore a range of possible scenarios that meet the expectations of the global community regarding Australia’s role in limiting climate change and its consequences for humanity.

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.

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