Australia’s bare-minimum emissions plan rates zero all-round

Nov 25, 2021
Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia’s net zero plan is a techno-optimist thought-bubble: it has an inappropriate objective, no clear priorities, and no realistic costing.

The Australian government’s Net Zero Emission by 2050 Plan (NZE2050), astonishingly and quite deliberately, ignores the impacts of climate change and the associated social and economic damage of acting too slowly.

Just before departing for the Glasgow climate summit the prime minister launched “Australia’s Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan; a whole-of-economy Plan to achieve NZE2050”; or “The Australian Way” as the summary version has it. The modelling and analysis supporting the plan have just been released.

These documents were obviously finalised long before the government reached agreement with the National Party to adopt NZE2050 as policy. Hence the costs and implications of this agreement, which we are told are substantial, are presumably not included in the Plan.

Plans, to be meaningful, need objectives.

The stated objective of the plan is to achieve NZE2050 for Australia. This is to be done via “technology not taxes”, with “expanded choice, not mandates”, without requiring “coal or gas production to shut down” or “the displacement of productive land”, with “no loss of jobs” orany cost to the Australian community”.

The rationale for adopting the NZE2050 objective is unclear other than the implication that, as the world is decarbonising, Australia must react and NZE2050 had become the minimal acceptable response from a developed country.

However, the modelling documentation reveals, astonishingly, that the plan is purely an economic and technological forecast which “does not assess the costs or impacts of climate change or the benefits of avoided warming associated with different global emissions trajectories”.

So it ignores the primary reason for climate change action, namely to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts.

Yet in signing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the government committed to do so by contributing to “holding the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C”.

Unfortunately the science confirms it is now virtually impossible to stay below 1.5C, and probably below 2C. The inadequacy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP process — again demonstrated in Glasgow, not least because of Australian intransigence — means that the world is now faced with the imminent prospect of irreversible, self-sustaining warming. Only extremely rapid emission reductions by 2030 will avoid this outcome; NZE2050 is far too late.

The first responsibility of the government should be the security and prosperity of the Australian people.  The greatest threat to that security now is not China, Taiwan or the lack of submarines, but climate change. The objective of any sensible plan to address climate change must start from an honest assessment of the climate risks and opportunities. That determines the target to be met and the plan to get there, as proposed in the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group “Missing in Action” report.

The government has never assessed those risks, deliberately ignoring the climate science.

Given the damage already inflicted on the Australian community, particularly in rural areas, with climate-related drought, bushfires, floods and storms, to ignore the massive increase in such impacts likely resulting from NZE2050 beggars belief. Likewise it is irresponsible to pretend that there will be no cost to the community, not least because emergency action to reach net zero emissions as close to 2030 as possible will become inevitable as climate impacts escalate.

But the most dangerous aspect of the Plan is its assumption that Australia’s coal and gas industries can expand for decades to come, pouring fuel on the climate fire, until markets dictate otherwise, on the basis that emissions will be offset by technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and soil carbon, which have yet to be proven at scale.

CCS has worked in the oil and gas industry for decades, re-injecting CO2 produced during oil and gas extraction back into the reservoirs from which it came. But those reservoirs are limited, and rarely near the point of emission. Injecting CO2 into non-oil and gas reservoirs has been attempted for years but proven far more problematic technically, as the WA Gorgon project demonstrates. Most major projects have failed, and CCS will not be available at the scale the plan implies.

Soil carbon works but takes time to become effective, time we no longer have; it is also unlikely to work at the scale required.

Concern has long been expressed over this “moral hazard” around climate change. In short, allowing expansion of fossil fuel use now on the grounds that yet-to-be proven technology will magically appear in the future to solve its emission problem; the danger being that catastrophic climate impacts will get locked in long before that technology eventuates.

That concern, voiced two decades ago, is even more critical today, given the accelerating impact of climate change and the fact that the world must achieve dramatic emission reductions in less than a decade.

For the government to put forward this plan in current circumstances is a complete abrogation of its responsibility to ensure the security of the Australian people, particularly younger generations. This failure of imagination and leadership must stop and a real plan must be adopted, based on facts not deception.

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