Victorian climate law shows limits of Paris targets

To achieve the Paris target, industrialised countries would need to be at zero net emissions by 2035.
Friday, March 10, 2017

With the passage of the Climate Change Act (CCA) that mandates a target of zero net emissions by 2050, Victoria is formally in the leadership among state and federal governments. 

If the response of Victoria’s climate denying Coalition opposition is anything to go by, the Victorian government must be on the right track. The LNP voted against the climate bill, adding to its opposition to the state’s renewable energy target, which it declared only weeks earlier. In light of the wrecking tactics that state and federal Coalition are using against climate action, a clear state target to initiate action is obviously welcome. 

The CCA is a framework for action, not an exhaustive list of actions. It specifies a 2050 carbon emissions’ target to be achieved with interim targets set at five-year intervals. Five-yearly reviews are to be conducted by appropriate experts in climate science, and government departments are required to factor these targets into all decision making.

Perhaps most significantly, members of the public (such as environmental groups) will be given legal standing, as under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, to challenge any government decisions if they do not appear to take the climate targets into consideration.

Interestingly, and despite a recommendation from the independent review of the 2010 CCA that preceded the present act, state emissions trading schemes have been explicitly ruled out for the time being by the state government.

With a target of 20% emissions reduction (on 2005 emissions) by 2020, the target means an average of 2.7% of 2005 emissions to be cut each year until 2050. This might seem like a lot, considering that all of those emissions are attached to some form of economic activity that will need to be shut down and/or replaced. 

While the 2050 target is consistent with the Paris international climate agreement, which specified an aim of limiting climate change to 1.5°C of warming, it assumes that emissions up to 2050 will exceed this target, and that by 2050 the technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere will have been invented. 

In other words, the Paris agreement — even if every state in the world successfully met it — is a target for dangerous climate change above 1.5°C of warming, with a gloss of wild technological optimism to distract from this dismal outcome. 

Respected climate scientist Kevin Anderson has used climate models to suggest an emissions trajectory for keeping global warming below 1.5°C. It would have industrialised nations like Australia reaching zero net emissions by 2035 and the industrialising nations (who are responsible for a much lower proportion of historical greenhouse emissions) by 2050. 

In terms of the CCA, a 2035 zero emissions target would double the annual emissions cuts after 2020, to about 5.6%. Weighed against this scientific analysis, Victoria's target is woefully inadequate; yet (internationally) such massive reductions in emissions have only ever occurred due to economic collapse. 

Should a later government realise the failings of the CCA, they will have even less time, necessitating even deeper annual emissions cuts, with the danger that a 2035 target will be impossible. 

However, the immediate actions to meet a distant 2050 target may be quite different to a 2035 target. The 33 years between now and 2050 is enough time to construct, operate and then decommission a new coal or gas “low emissions” power station. If our aim is zero emissions by 2035, we would need to aim for zero emissions electricity by 2030 at the latest; there is no room for a single new fossil fuel power station in such a plan.

Yet the Andrews government has just permitted an extension to the Loy Yang B power station, one of Victoria's super-polluting brown coal generators. This is likely quite consistent with a 2050 zero emissions target but less likely with a 2035 target.

This difference could remove the ability of environment advocates to challenge government decisions that are objectively bad, but which remain comfortably within the stated 2050 aim. The target matters. 

A small opportunity could be presented by arguing that the bulk of the 2050 goal should be met early, so that annual reductions are well above 2.7% in the first years, expecting that the most difficult emissions sources to close down (from agriculture, for argument’s sake) can occur later. 

What this means is that the community and any organisations or political parties that recognise we need zero emissions long before 2050 will need to win that fight largely outside the framework of legal challenges and the five-yearly reviews of the 2050 target.

We need to fight for a safer target. Whether fighting to improve the existing target is worthwhile is complicated, but it would be a mistake to make that the main aim of our campaigns.

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