Australia’s climate targets could go up in smoke amid planned increase in coal, gas use: report

Mar 27, 2023
Orroral Valley Fire viewed from Tuggeranong January 2020

New research shows 116 new government-approved fossil fuel projects due to start before 2030 will emit 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions by then. That amount is vastly more than proposed reduction in emissions; ‘clearly, Australia’s climate policies are not working’.

Australia’s newly approved fossil fuel projects and government policies that permit pollution will make it hard for the country to meet its promises on climate change, new research has shown.

According to the Australia Institute, a Canberra think tank, the 116 new projects that have been government-approved to begin production before 2030 will emit 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions by then.

That figure is around 24 times greater than the proposed 205-million-tonne reduction in emissions that Australia’s climate policy tool, the so-called safeguard mechanism, will achieve, according to an in-depth report published by the institute on Tuesday.

The combination of such a big increase in fossil fuel projects and mechanism rules which allow existing polluters to continue to emit mean “it will be very hard for Australia to meet its short- and long-term targets”, the institute’s chief economist Richard Denniss told This Week in Asia.

“While most countries are transitioning away from gas and coal, Australia, which is already the world’s third-biggest fossil fuel exporter, is still subsidising the expansion of its fossil fuel industry,” he said.

The research comes after Canberra gave the green light for new legislation late last year that would slash carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, after the previous coalition government refused to do more to stop firms polluting the atmosphere.

Criticised by both domestic and international experts for being a climate change laggard, Australia is one of the biggest emitters per capita in the world and has been classified as having insufficient emissions policies by the independent Climate Action Tracker.

It measures governments’ climate action against the Paris Agreement aim of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees.

Scott Morrison’s coalition government lost its re-election campaign last year in part due to the swing in votes to many climate change-focused “teal” independent candidates.
In the meantime, there are 116 new fossil fuel projects on the Australian government’s Resources and Energy Major Projects (REMP) list, two more than last year, with 69 of them being coal projects.

Tuesday’s research said windfall profits had provided a strong additional incentive for new fossil fuel projects to proceed.

Over the three pandemic years, the price of coal, for example, soared to record highs as global economies, including Australia, tried to recover more quickly by accessing easy-to-use fossil fuel energy.

“Clearly, Australia’s climate policies are not working,” said Mark Ogge, one of the authors of the report and principal adviser at the institute.

“Rather than stop these damaging projects, it legitimises and helps facilitate them.

“What we need is the real certainty that would come from the government pledging that no more coal or gas projects will be approved.”

It is over this push to rule out all fossil fuel projects that has locked Canberra in a stalemate over the current proposed changes to the government’s safeguard mechanism, which was introduced by the coalition government to limit emissions but not properly enforced.

The Albanese administration wants to improve the mechanism by introducing new baselines that will force most companies to cut emissions by 4.9 per cent a year but allow them to buy carbon credits to offset any gaps.

The Greens, however, want to stop all new coal and gas projects.

On Tuesday, businesswoman Kerry Schott, a former government energy adviser, urged Canberra to quickly get changes to the safeguard mechanism across the line or risk some of the country’s heaviest polluters missing their targets.

The legislation must get through the senate in the next fortnight if it is to take effect at the start of the new financial year on July 1.

In an address to the National Press Club, Schott also said it was important to understand that Australia was trying to decarbonise, not deindustrialise, referencing concerns that the safeguard mechanism would allow polluters to rely on carbon credits.

Earlier this week, more than 50 Australian environmental organisations, including Greenpeace, published an open letter asking the government to follow the advice of the world’s scientists and curb new projects, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a landmark report this week warning that the pace and scale of climate action were insufficient to tackle climate change.

In launching the report, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for an “all-hands-on-deck acceleration agenda”, including a push to phase out coal projects in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries by 2030, and by 2040 in other nations. Australia is an OECD member.

Polls by the Australia Institute across five federal electorates in the last week show that most Australians support a ban on new gas and coal projects.

Meanwhile, Xuyang Dong, a China energy policy analyst for Australian think tank Climate Energy Finance, said the Australian media’s hand-wringing over a possible war with China has clouded the country’s focus on the greater threat of climate change.

“Diversifying Australia’s security strategy to encompass these concerns is inarguably important because China is no longer the only, or major, threat to the world, or to Australia,” Dong said on Tuesday.

“Climate change and the energy crisis are clearly endangering Australia’s national interests now, and require more nuanced conversations to tackle.”


First published by the South China Morning Post March 22, 2023

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