PETER Sainsbury. Crisis … what crisis? Australian government discussion paper downplays climate change

May 18, 2017

By ratifying the Paris Agreement on climate change in November 2016 the Australian government committed to a target of reducing Australian carbon emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. The government also agreed to review its climate change policies during 2017 to ensure that its policies ‘remain effective in achieving’ the 2030 target and the other commitments in the Paris Agreement. In March 2017 the government released Terms of Reference for the review and a discussion paper ‘Review of climate change policies’ (

The discussion paper is a masterpiece of obfuscation and evasion that presents some (what I assume the government considers to be) good news about their policies to tackle climate change while avoiding the single most important and pressing issue, the need for Australia to rapidly reduce its carbon emissions and reach net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible, by 2040 at the latest.

As examples of the government’s red herrings and prestidigitation, I highlight:

  • The introduction to the Terms of Reference states that ‘[t]he Government’s policies are working to reduce Australia’s emissions [and] have Australia on track to surpass its 2020 emissions reduction target and provide a framework for the longer term’. The 2020 target is to reduce emissions by 5% on the 2000 level and current policies were designed to achieve just that. If we do get there it will have taken about 10 years and to suggest that the policies that got us there will be sufficient (‘remain effective’) to meet the 2030 target, never mind the more challenging longer term target of zero emissions, is frankly ridiculous. To have even a 50% chance of global warming remaining below 2oC developed nations must reduce emissions by 5-10% each and every year for the next couple of decades ( ).
  • In the Introduction to the discussion paper it is claimed that if the 2030 target is met Australia will have halved its emissions per capita and reduced by two-thirds the emissions intensity of economic activity (emissions per unit of GDP) since 20051. This might make a good sound-bite but it obscures more than it reveals when the increases in population and GDP in the same period are not mentioned. The figures serve principally to impress people who know little about the issue and distract them from the meaningful and necessary challenge – reducing and eliminating emissions. Preventing the inevitable and catastrophic consequences of runaway climate changes (for human health, human civilisation and the environment) will not be achieved by making the economy or personal consumption more efficient. It will be achieved only by eliminating all emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (discussed further below) and thus keeping the total accumulated amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below a critical level.
  • The discussion paper outrageously asserts on page 11 that ‘[t]he Government’s approach to energy policy is to take a technology neutral approach …’. Who can forget Abbott’s claim that coal is ‘good for humanity’ or Hockey’s view that the appearance of wind farms is ‘utterly offensive’ or Scott Morrison’s theatrical brandishing of a lump of coal in the House of Representatives while declaring ‘no fear of coal’ in this government? Not to mention the joke of establishing an extremely costly National Wind Farm Commissioner in the face of no credible evidence of any harmful effects of wind farms. Any taxpayers’ money spent on investigating the health effects of power generation would be much more responsibly and justifiably spend on examining the very well documented harmful health effects of the mining, processing, transporting, burning and waste-disposal of coal in Australia.
  • The repeated emphasis in the discussion paper on a ‘lower emissions future’ evades the real problem of reaching zero emissions and the magnitude and urgency of the task. An honest presentation of the challenge facing Australia and the whole world would be to emphasise the necessary goal of zero net emissions in the near future.
  • A further example of the attempt to downplay the looming crisis and delay action until it is someone else’s problem is the emphasis, most notably on page 30, on the changes that will be required IN the second half of the century. In fairness to the government, this conveniently repeats the no-doubt intentional, negotiated ambiguity (and weakness) in the Paris Agreement itself:  ‘… so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.
  • At the end of most sections there is a question for readers about concerns and opportunities arising from policies to reduce emissions relating to jobs, investment, trade competitiveness, households and regional Australia. But nowhere is the reader asked about concerns and opportunities relating to the environment or human health. In fact these two issues are almost entirely absent from the discussion paper.
  • As part of the Paris Agreement Australia committed to ‘consider a potential’ long-term emissions reduction goal beyond 2030. This extremely half-hearted commitment forms the review’s last term of reference but is not discussed anywhere in the paper. A question asks readers to suggest ‘factors that should be considered in this process’.

A casual reader of the discussion paper might well conclude that Australia is doing quite well at reducing its carbon emissions and making good progress towards achieving our short and medium term carbon emission reduction targets; that is, that minor tweaks rather than major changes are needed to Australian climate change policies and that we are making our fair contribution to global efforts to prevent catastrophic global warming. The casual but inquisitive reader might, therefore, be a little surprised if they were to examine the figure below from another government publication, ‘Australia’s emissions projections 2016’ (December 2016) (

Australia’s emissions trends, 1990 to 2030

Source:      Department of the Environment and Energy 2016; Department of the Environment and Energy analysis

Note:         The historical emissions from 1990 to 2015 have been revised since the release of Australia’s emissions projections 2014–15, published in March 2015. It is important to note that year to year figures are different in these publications and not directly comparable as the underlying assumptions, accounting systems and policy measures differ.

This graph displays Australia’s actual greenhouse gas emissions in million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalence (MtCO2-e) from 1990 to 2015 and projected emissions from 2016 to 2030. Three things stand out:

  1. Despite some ups and downs (annual emissions peaked at just over 600 MtCO2-e in 2006 and troughed at approximately 480 MtCO2-e in 1995), Australian emissions have been remarkably constant between 1990 and 2015, and are little changed in 2015 from 1990 (the blue line in the graph).
  2. Emissions are projected to increase from approximately 530 MtCO2-e in 2015 to approximately 600 MtCO2-e in 2030 (the grey shading represents the range of projected emissions).
  3. The projected 2030 level of emissions is well above the level that is required in 2030 (approximately 440 MtCO2-e) to meet our committed target (the dotted lines in the graph).

I referred above to a hypothetical casual reader but this discussion paper is not written in ways that would enable the casual reader to better understand and engage with the real issues and challenges facing Australian governments and society as a result of climate change. The content obscures and diminishes the problem, reassures readers that the government has matters in hand, and implies that avoiding disruptions to the national and household economies is more important than implementing effective action to combat climate change to safeguard the health and survival of current and future generations of Australians. The failure of the discussion paper to discuss Australia’s much-needed long-term emissions reduction target and policies to achieve it is disgraceful. If the government were serious, it would have developed and invited comment on a draft roadmap (including policies and programs, targets, dates and milestones) to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century2.


  1. These estimates are considerably higher those presented in ‘Australia’s emissions projections 2016’, the government report on which the discussion paper’s carbon dioxide emissions figures are based, where emissions per capita are projected to fall by 32% over this time period and the emissions intensity of GDP is projected to fall by 50%.
  2. Submissions on the discussion paper closed on 5 May 2017.

Peter Sainsbury is Associate Professor, School of Public Health, University of Sydney


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