The maths of 43%…

Jul 30, 2022
Climate change
Image: Pixabay

Labor’s commitment to reduce Australia’s emissions 43% by 2030 is hotly debated. It is important that we understand what that 43% means; what it includes; and, crucially, what it excludes.

As our new parliament meets for the first time this week, Labor’s commitment to reduce Australia’s emissions 43% by 2030 will be hotly debated. So it is important that we understand what that 43% means; what it includes; and, crucially, what it excludes.

In December 2021, Labor’s caucus committed to achieving a 43% decrease in Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a commitment which they then took to the recent election. The baseline against which that 43% is to be measured is 2005. That year was chosen by the then coalition government, as part of the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, in order to cynically exploit the fact that our emissions related to land use had already fallen dramatically from a peak in 2005-6. The land use category of emissions (formally known as Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry; acronym LULUCF) most importantly accounts for carbon released by land clearing and carbon sequestered by regrowth. Australia’s total emissions in that baseline year were 625 Mt CO2-e, of which 90 Mt were from LULUCF. As deforestation has fallen from its peak in 2005, our LULUCF emissions have decreased; since 2015 they have actually been negative, because of both reforestation and the ongoing effects of La Nina weather patterns in driving vegetation growth. (Data on Australia’s emissions to end 2021 are available in a set of excellent interactive graphs.

The change in LULUCF emissions between 2005 and 2021, from 90 Mt pa to minus 40 Mt pa, represents a fall in Australia’s total emissions of 20% – without any effort on the part of government! Until the impact of the COVID pandemic, our non-LULUCF emissions had actually increased, with the steady improvements due to increased renewable electricity being outweighed by a steady worsening in emissions from heating, mining, manufacturing and transport. COVID pulled that back a little, so that in 2021, thanks entirely to land use changes, our emissions had fallen 21% from the artificial high of 2005, and we were already half-way to achieving a reduction of 43%.

It is estimated that between now and 2030 a further 10% reduction will be achieved with no new policies at all, primarily because of further expansion of renewable electricity. This is how the Coalition was able to say – ad nauseam – that it would “meet and beat” its do-nothing target of 26-28%. And this is the situation Labor has now inherited: ie without any action at all they will oversee a fall in emissions of 30% from 2005 levels by 2030.

What Labor is proposing is the addition of new measures to move us from that guaranteed 30% to a target of 43%. The 13% will be made up of accelerated growth of renewable electricity (5%); increased incentives for industry to reduce carbon generation (including the contentious use of carbon farming offsets) (7%); and support for electrical vehicle uptake (1%). Could Labor aim higher? Should there be interim targets? Is the 43% to be a minimum or a maximum? These are some of the questions up for debate.

Whatever our target, it is essential to understand that it is a domestic emissions reduction target, which therefore does not include some very important “Australia-related” carbon emissions. For example, by international agreement, no countries include, in their carbon accounting, emissions from international aviation or from overseas military activities. Nor do we count the emissions embedded in goods we import; those emissions are owned by the country of manufacture – often countries with much weaker environmental laws than ours.

Finally, and most contentiously, we do not count emissions from Australian fossil fuels exported and therefore burnt overseas. Australia is now the world’s largest exporter of LNG and the second largest (after Indonesia) exporter of coal, making us the world’s biggest fossil fuel export nation overall. If the emissions from these exported fossil fuels are counted, Australia’s impact on the world’s emissions triples, from 1.3% to 4%, moving us to fifth place (behind China, America, India and Russia) in our impact on the worsening climate crisis. To what extent should Australia take responsibility for these emissions? Whatever one’s opinion, the fact is that they are totally separate from our domestic emissions and therefore have no effect on Labor’s 43% target. Which explains the apparent paradox of a government claiming high ambition on emissions reduction, while at the same time approving the development of large numbers of new coal and gas projects. Mr Albanese has made it clear that Labor will not block new fossil fuel projects, stating that such an action would (i) have a “devastating impact” on the Australian economy and (ii) actually lead to higher world emissions, because of the use of more-polluting fossil fuels from elsewhere in the world (the drug-dealer’s defence). This despite repeated calls from the UN, the IPCC and the International Energy Agency for a ban on all new fossil fuel projects if the world is to have any hope of avoiding climate catastrophe.

43% may be a simple number, but both for Labor and for Australia it surely represents a set of very complicated equations.

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