Where to now for climate action in Australia?

Protesters at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn on November 4.
December 1, 2017

Another United Nations climate conference (COP23) is over — though many people would have barely noticed, given the lack of media coverage. The Paris Climate Agreement is locked in and, contrary to the Coalition’s inetrpretation, Australia needs to ratchet up its emissions reduction.

This is a useful time to reflect on where Australia sits globally on climate action and what areas are of concern.

We often hear stories about other countries making great progress on transitioning away from fossil fuels, making Australia seem quite backward. We should be careful about such comparisons. Countries making grand announcements about ending coal typically use very little of it — their main energy sources are gas, hydro or nuclear.

Germany, seen as a leader in renewable energy, actually uses a lot of coal for its power generation, much of it the highly polluting brown coal similar to that used in Victorian power stations. There is a strong anti-coal movement in Germany, as in Australia. So let’s not hold up Germany as a beacon of climate action.

Australia is stingy and a bully

That is not to let Australia off the hook.

At COP23, there was a prize called the Colossal Fossil, given to the country doing the most to obstruct action on climate change. Australia came a close second to the United States (which deserved it for being the only country wanting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement). So in the global stakes, we are one of the baddies.

Australia was exposed as a bully in blocking the requests of developing countries, many of which are vulnerable to climate impacts.

Australia is also very stingy. Rich countries, such as Australia, have caused climate change through their historical emissions.

We have an obligation to help developing countries to develop sustainably (“mitigation”) and to adapt to climate impacts as best they can (“adaptation”). We also owe developing countries reparations; that is, we have an obligation to pay for the damage that is already being inflicted on these countries due to extreme weather events and other climate impacts (called “loss and damage”).

The Green Climate Fund is a mechanism for richer countries to fund mitigation and adaptation activities for poorer countries. Its goal is to raise $100 billion a year by 2020. Australia plays a key role in this fund — it is on the board — but its pledge is very small. To be considered fair, it would need to increase its pledge by a factor of 50.

There is no current a mechanism for paying for loss and damage. At COP23, Australia did its best to dash developing countries’ hopes of getting a fair process for reparations.

Land use

The federal government likes to depict itself as focusing on emissions opportunities that others ignore. Hence it focuses on emissions associated with land use. Australia has a long history of using this as a way of avoiding dealing with our coal dependence. Australia argued successfully for emissions from land clearing to be included in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

In 1990, the base year, our emissions from land clearing represented about 28% of total emissions. Because land clearing was subsequently reduced, Australia has been able to increase its emissions from fossil fuels and still claim it has met its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. Australia was even allowed to increase its total emissions under Kyoto, unlike nearly all other developed countries.

Indeed, having the rules set in its favour made it very easy for Australia to meet its commitments. It even had emission credits to spare, so it carried some over to the next Kyoto commitment period (up to 2020). This was in contrast to some European countries that refused to carry over their excess emissions, due to the oversupply of such credits (known as “hot air”).

At COP23, Australia's Minister for Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg spoke at three events, all on land use issues. A key speech was on “blue carbon” (storing carbon in coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves). Frydenberg promised $6 million for research on blue carbon initiatives in Pacific islands, particularly on ways of accounting for this carbon in greenhouse gas inventories.

It is vital to understand how best to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in land and coastal ecosystems, but we must do this in addition to slashing emissions from fossil fuel use. Australia's government treats the storing of carbon on land as an alternative to reducing fossil fuel emissions.

If the government did both, we could take its efforts on land use seriously. But until Australia grapples with fossil fuels, the focus on land use looks like avoidance.

Trading emissions

The Australian government apparently gets away with focusing on land use and effectively ignoring fossil fuel emissions because of the way climate change accounting has been constructed.

Rather than focusing on the problematic activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, discussions typically focus on emissions. Emissions from various sources are treated as equivalent and thus interchangeable. This allows carbon markets to be established and carbon offsets to be sold, enabling polluting activities to continue.

But atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are already far too high. We need to both stop further emissions and draw down excess emissions.

Any emission trading scheme that treats positive emissions and negative emissions (i.e. drawing down or sequestering carbon) as interchangeable must be rejected. As well as delaying the transition from fossil fuels, we should not be using up the few opportunities to sequester carbon in this way.

Likewise, schemes that allow emissions to be traded internationally are highly problematic, even though this is enshrined in the Paris Agreement under the term Internationally Traded Mitigation Opportunities (ITMOs).

Problems with international carbon credits, such as environmental damage from some activities, double counting and uncertainty about whether the activity would have occurred anyway, were discussed at length at COP23 and there are efforts underway to improve them. We will have to wait to see if such carbon markets can ever be made to work as their proponents claim.

The Coalition and Labor are keen for Australia to use international emissions trading — though, interestingly, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was vehemently opposed, correctly arguing that such schemes were dodgy. The justification for international trading is that it reduces the cost.

Apart from questions about whether they actually work, use of international carbon credits is likely to leave Australia with highly polluting infrastructure. Delaying our inevitable transition will mean great disruptions and costs to be borne in future years.

We could extend this idea when thinking about how Australia is to reduce its emissions as per the Paris Agreement. Many in the climate movement argue the electricity sector must do more than other sectors initially, because it is relatively easy to transition to zero emissions electricity. That may be so, but we would then delay the transformation of transport, agriculture and industrial processes.

Rather than focusing on emissions, we would be better to focus on what needs to be done: transforming all sectors so they are sustainable and sequestering as much carbon as we can.

High consumption lifestyle

Australia is a huge exporter of fossil fuels — coal and gas — and these exported emissions are far greater than those we create within Australia. We also import a lot of embodied emissions in the consumer goods we buy from other countries. But because of the way the rules are set up, neither of these count as our emissions.

Despite many countries proudly proclaiming they are phasing out coal, there are also a few developing countries that are expanding their use of coal. Australia justifies opening new coalmines by claiming that these poor countries need our coal. Labor, which argues for stronger domestic emission reductions, has a blind spot on the issue of exported fossil fuels. Hence it can justify support for the Adani coalmine.

The wasteful, high consumption lifestyles enjoyed by many in richer countries typically rely on imported goods. Again, the associated emissions only count towards the emissions of the countries where the goods are made, typically developing countries.

The rules about how things are counted in climate change accounting serve to obscure Australia’s high contribution and allow the government to get away with claims it is acting “responsibly”. Moreover, these rules do not include Australia’s and other rich countries’ contributions to overall atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. If we consider historical emissions, Australia’s failure to act looks even worse.

Billionaires against coal

Large amounts of money from wealthy philanthropists have been going to environmental groups to help them fund their anti-coal campaigns and legal challenges. While this is useful for these groups, we should ask how such funding arrangements are shaping anti-coal campaigns.

A transition away from coal is underway. But we also know that transitions usually have serious adverse economic impacts on people working in the old industries.

Trade unions have long been calling for a just transition, so that affected workers and communities are not just thrown on the scrapheap. Fossil fuel workers need to be provided with retraining opportunities and decent jobs, and not be left to the vagaries of the job market.

Climate groups often talk about jobs in renewable energy replacing coal jobs. But we need specific, detailed, well-funded transition plans, not just general statements. Such green jobs may be in different areas, require different skills, have poorer working conditions and rely on a non-unionised workforce. A just transition plan needs to be formulated specifically for each region. Unless environmental groups work hand-in-hand with trade unions, it seems unlikely that we will have anything more than a token nod to a just transition.

The challenge now for the climate movement is to ensure that a just transition is at the centre of our demands.

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