Australia has close to zero chance of achieving net zero emissions by 2050

Aug 26, 2021

The newly released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is emphatic: the effects of climate change we are seeing now are irreversible and will worsen. It underscores the critical importance of the upcoming Glasgow climate conference and the need for all countries to lock in net zero emissions by mid-century in order to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic impacts.

Australia, along with 190 other nations, has ratified the Paris agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC report underlines the importance of limiting warming to 1.5oC. 

At the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in November world leaders will discuss whether enough has been achieved since the 2015 Paris agreement. Many scientists say efforts have fallen far short and that global warming could reach 3oC by 2100. Countries are being asked for ‘ambitious’ emissions reduction targets for 2030, and how they will achieve ‘net zero’, i.e. no more going into the atmosphere than is removed, by 2050.

 Unlike nearly all other developed, and many developing countries, Australia has yet to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. China now has a target of net zero by 2060. Currently,131 countries, covering 73% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, have adopted or are considering net zero targets. Australia’s emissions per capita are double those of China and almost three times those of the UK.

 Currently, the Commonwealth Government has only a modest target for 2030, which appears more impressive than warranted because it is benchmarked against emissions reduction since 2005, a year when our emissions were close to their highest level ever. This inadequate 2030 target puts us in a virtually impossible position to meet anything like ‘net zero’ by 2050, nor even by 2060.

According to Ian Dunlop, a former international oil, gas and coal industry executive: ‘The Federal government will not commit to any net zero emission target date, so we have an open-ended Technology Roadmap with no emission reduction time frame. … Whilst some States are taking serious climate action, it is compromised by short sighted politics.’

The Commonwealth Government’s scenarios for 2030

In a separate article, I provide some background on GHG inventories and recent trends in Australia’s emissions to 2019. It shows how the decrease in net emissions since 2005 have relied almost totally on the growth in renewables for electricity generation and the reduction in land clearing.

 The latest Emissions Projections report prepared by the Commonwealth Government, released in December 2020 claims that we are on track to meet our current 2030 commitment: a 26-28% reduction from 2005 levels. There is no mention of 2050.

 The following graph (Figure 3 from this report) shows several sets of projections and scenarios to 2030.The tables that follow later show net emissions in 2005 (the Government’s reference year) and 2020, as well as the projected values for each scenario. You will see that the best that we can hope for is a 29% reduction from 2005 levels – from 615 Mt (CO2-e) to 426 Mt (CO2-e).

Chart, line chart Description automatically generated

 

The 2018, 2019 and 2020 projections were developed and released at the end of each calendar year, based on the latest GHG inventory data in those years. The 2018 and 2019 projections are now superseded by the 2020 projections (the solid black line). All three are extrapolations of trends and policy measures in place at those times. You can see how the 2030 estimates have been progressively revised downwards each year reflecting some gains in emissions reduction.

 The remaining three projections do allow for new policies already announced to have an impact. The trajectories to the 26% and 28% reduction targets – the two dashed lines – reflect the Government’s current commitment to 2030. The ‘high technology’ scenario, which forecasts a 29% reduction, also includes the Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap (September 2020), ‘a strategy to accelerate development and commercialisation of low emissions technologies … new and emerging’.

 What do the scenarios tell us about Australia’s future net emissions?

There are three key scenarios that are relevant: the ‘baseline’ 2020 projection of a 22% reduction by 2030, the Government’s claimed target of 26% and the high technology option of 29%.

 The following tables summarise what we could expect from each scenario, using 2005, 2020, 2030 and 2050 as milestones.

 

Baseline 2020: 22% reduction from 2005 to 2030, average of 5.5 Mt pa

2005

2020

2030

2050

2060

Actual and Projections: Mt (CO2-e)

615

513

478

0

0

Change from previous milestone: Mt (CO2-e)

-102

-35

-478

-478

Change from previous milestone: Percent

-16.6%

-6.8%

-100.0%

-100.0%

Average reduction pa: Mt (CO2-e)

-6.8

-3.5

-23.9

-15.9

The 2020 baseline projection is the only scenario for which detailed sectoral data is available. It tells us that if existing trends and patterns continue, with no new policies, net emissions from Australia by 2030 will have fallen to 478 Mt of (CO2-e). The average annual reduction from 2005 to 2020 was 6.8 Mt, and 3.5 Mt from 2020 to 2030. That tells us that instead of speeding up our emissions reductions we are slowing down. Yet we would have to ramp up soon after 2030: to reach net zero by 2050 the rate would have to increase to 23.9 Mt pa; or to 15.9 Mt pa even for net zero by 2060.

 

Gov’t Target: 26% reduction from 2005 to 2030, average of 6.5 Mt pa.

2005

2020

2030

2050

2060

Actual and Projections: Mt (CO2-e)

615

513

453

0

0

Change from previous milestone: Mt (CO2-e)

-102

-60

-453

-453

Change from previous milestone: Percent

-16.6%

-11.7%

-100.0%

-100.0%

Average reduction pa: Mt (CO2-e)

-6.8

-6.0

-22.7

-15.1

Under the Government’s promised target of 26% reduction by 2030 compared to 2005, the average annual reduction required thereafter to reach net zero by 2050 is 22.7 Mt.

 

Gov’t High Technology: 29% reduction from 2005 to 2030, average of 7.2 Mt pa

2005

2020

2030

2050

2060

Actual and Projections: Mt (CO2-e)

615

513

436

0

0

Change from previous milestone: Mt (CO2-e)

-102

-77

-436

-436

Change from previous milestone: Percent

-16.6%

-15.0%

-100.0%

-100.0%

Average reduction pa: Mt (CO2-e)

-6.8

-7.7

-21.8

-14.5

Under the most optimistic scenario, a 29% reduction by 2030 will still mean the average annual reduction (after 2030) required to reach net zero by 2050 is 21.8 Mt.

Given that reducing emissions at the beginning is far easier than finding those reductions as 2050 approaches, we conclude that Australia (given its existing trends, promised new policies and optimistic technology improvements) has an almost impossible task to reach net zero emissions by then. And it’s even difficult by 2060. As the Grattan Institute points out, decisions today lock in emissions for decades to come.

A 26% reduction claim hides the snail’s pace improvement to 2030

Here we note that levels of reductions based on percentages are potentially misleading. Instead, reductions in absolute amounts, that is, in Mt of (CO2-e) are more indicative of the task ahead.

 The following graph (Figure 8 from the projections report) shows the projected baseline 2020 contributions from the different emissions sectors and we see that some sectors are showing no improvement, or even rising emissions.

 

Chart Description automatically generated

 

Just comparing 2030 with 2020, the only positive we see are further emissions reductions from electricity generation associated with the continuing transition away from fossil fuels to renewables.

 However:

  • Emissions from stationary energy (other than electricity generation) and waste are expected to remain much the same,
  • Emissions from industrial processes and product use will decline only slightly.
  • Emissions from transport will continue rising. The assumption is that electric vehicles (EVs) will make up 26% of new light vehicle sales by 2030 and comprise just 7% of the light duty vehicle fleet by then.
  • Emissions from fugitives are projected to continue rising.
  • Emissions from agriculture are projected to continue rising, based on assumptions of a return to pre-drought ‘average seasonal’ conditions.
  • The LULUCF sector – which on the graph dips under zero at 2015 – is expected to have little value as a sink by 2030 and in fact, the sink of -18 Mt (CO2-e) in 2020 will almost be wiped out, rising to just -5 Mt (CO2-e) by then. This is because the benefits from the planting of new forests is projected to be almost cancelled out by continuing land clearing.

The Commonwealth Government is optimistic that new policies coming on stream will help reduce net emissions even more by 2030 compared to this baseline trajectory. Hence, Australia’s agreed target is set at 26-28% emissions reductions over the 2005 level.

 However, there appears to be no firm data to support these, and no clarity about how our commitment will be met. Further, the ‘high technology’ 29% reduction associated with the Technology Investment Roadmap (see p 62 of the projections report) is based on ‘ambitious stretch goals’ that rely on energy storage, carbon capture and storage and soil carbon. It is promoted by the Government as ‘over-achieving’ our target.

 Even this is despairingly inadequate. Thus, as explained in an earlier table, at best it will drop to 436 Mt under the 29% scenario. The drop of only 15% between 2020 and 2030, or 7.7 Mt pa, leaves us the mammoth task of tripling the annual reduction rate to reach zero net emissions by 2050.

 The Commonwealth’s climate change strategies rely heavily on expectations around new technology. Some (such as clean hydrogen) are not even expected to have any impact before 2030. What we see published is essentially a collection of high-level discussion papers, broad national strategies and grants programs with a focus on encouraging voluntary and low-cost abatement actions.

 We are expected to trust that the ‘high technology’ scenario will improve the baseline projected 22% reduction to a 29% reduction.

 It appears there are no policies to drive emissions reductions from fugitive sources, transport or agriculture. It appears that we are only just starting to fund trials to find ways of reducing methane emissions from livestock.

What should Australia be doing to meet net zero by 2050?

The IPCC report indicates Australia needs to reduce emissions by 43% from 2020 to 2030 to play its part in meeting the UN goal of limiting warming to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels. The Government’s target (at best a 29% reduction from 2005) is barely sufficient to be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C.

 Analysis by the global consortium Climate Action Tracker provides an independent scientific analysis of climate action in different countries, Their graph (below) shows the steep decline needed from 2020 for Australia to reach net zero by 2050. (Note that it shows total emissions, not net.) Land sector carbon storage is needed to outweigh remaining GHG emissions from hard-to-abate sectors, especially agriculture, in order to meet net zero.

 

Chart Description automatically generated

Australia needs a federal led, coordinated approach with all states and territories

When we look at current projections and commitments from the states and territories collectively, we see a stark divide with the Commonwealth. All eight jurisdictions are committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Many have quite ambitious interim or sectoral targets. Emissions reductions to date from the growth of the renewables sector, efforts to reduce land clearing and increase tree cover, and efforts to reduce methane emissions from landfill, have come about largely through the actions of states and territories, rather than the Commonwealth.

The former senior public servant Dr Martin Parkinson, who headed up the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet between 2016 and 2019, tells the sorry tale of the ‘climate wars’ that have stalled progress since the Howard government era in his book, A Decade of Drift.

‘A decade of drift, of climate policies proposed and abandoned, or science acknowledged and then ignored, means Australians are more vulnerable to social and economic dislocation and disruption caused by rising temperatures. It has meant higher electricity prices for households and businesses, and lost investment opportunities and jobs, and has made the eventual adjustment process more expensive.’

‘The problem isn’t that we lack a carbon price but that we have too many. Every different state or Commonwealth intervention creates a new, or different shadow price on carbon …. The net result is inefficient and costly. We need a coordinated national effort, not the fragmented, ad-hoc short-termism that passes as policy today.’

The commitments of the states and territories needs leadership from the Commonwealth to ensure they are coordinated and effective, otherwise we will see a continuing huge waste of resources, not to mention a failure to meet anything like ‘net zero’ by 2050. Current indications are that the Commonwealth is not serious about the mammoth task ahead, they are simply ‘kicking the can down the road’.

Others have written useful explainers about the IPCC report and Australia’s response to climate change. In particular, see the Guardian’s Greg Jericho, The Age’s Ross Gittins, and the Grattan Institute.

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