Whichever major party claims government on May 18, neither can legitimately claim to have a mandate for its dangerously inadequate carbon emission reduction policies.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed throughout the election campaign that the Liberal-National Coalition “is taking real action on climate change”, telling the ABC’s Hack on May 13 that, if his government is returned, Australia will meet “our Kyoto 2020 targets”.
It’s odd he referred to Kyoto and not Paris, but that could be because of the Coalition’s dodgy accounting tricks, deployed to “prove” that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are indeed falling.
The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, is the current international carbon reduction mechanism. Signatories agreed to work towards a temperature limit of “well below” 2°C, placing the onus on countries to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which climate critics have pointed out is too little, too late for large parts of the world. It also placed a legal obligation on rich countries to provide climate finance to poor countries.
Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 (ratified in 2007), agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to at least 5% below 1990 levels by 2008–12. Being a high emitter, Australia was told it had to limit its average annual GHG emissions to 108% of its 1990 emissions.
But as Kyoto did not mandate any particular mechanism to do this, John Howard’s Coalition opted for emissions trading schemes and financing carbon abatement projects in other countries, while encouraging states and territories to hand out coal and gas licences.
Howard’s determination to protect coal and greenhouse gas-intensive industry has set the framework for the major parties ever since.
Morrison has repeated that Australia will meet its Paris obligations “at a canter”. But while the Paris Agreement is aimed at limiting the temperature rise it also does not specify how countries must achieve their carbon cuts.
That means the figures can be achieved via some tricky accounting. Last December, environment minister Melissa Parkes told a meeting of the Paris Agreement parties that Australia would use carbon credits, carried over from the Kyoto Protocol, to meet its Paris target. As New Zealand remarked then, this approach broke the spirit of the agreement.
The non-profit climate science and policy institute Climate Analytics estimated that having credits that were already “banked” against emission reduction targets almost halved Australia’s target. The Coalition counted land-clearing changes towards its emissions reductions, reducing its goal to cut carbon emissions by 26–28% by 2030 to around 17%.
The Coalition’s domestic emissions target is “very far away from the Paris Agreement”, Climate Analytics said, adding that its policies will help Australia’s emissions rise.
Pacific Island states
It has also criticised the Coalition for refusing to contribute to the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries and for cutting foreign aid.
The Coalition’s hostile approach towards Australia’s poorest neighbours has its origins in the attitude taken by the Howard government. Cabinet papers from 1996 show Howard would not countenance the call by small island states for a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2005.
Back then, environment minister Robert Hill told cabinet Australia’s emissions from the energy sector — half of its national emissions — were projected to be 40–50% above 1990 levels by 2010.
The Pacific needs Australia to adopt a more ambitious plan. For them, limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures is a matter of life or death. Climate change — not war — is the most pressing issue for Pacific Island nations, leaders say.
Climate Analytics has described Labor’s target of 45% below 2005 levels by 2030 as being “just within the Paris Agreement”. But Labor cannot claim to be seriously committed to reducing emissions when it refuses to rule out new coal, and is promoting $1.5 billion in gas infrastructure in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
According to the Australia Institute (AI), extracting gas from the NT could contribute about 4.5% to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. AI said Australia's greenhouse gas emissions rose 0.9% in the year to September 2018, fuelled largely by a 19.7% increase in Liquid Natural Gas exports.
Without an effective national policy to drive down GHG and improve energy efficiency, Climate Analytics says Australia remains on track to increase its overall GHG emissions by 8.6% above 2005 levels by 2030.
This is not what a majority wants, as the latest polling data from Vote Compass reveals.
It found that of 513,335 respondents, more than 80%, want more action on climate change. This figure has risen by 20 percentage points since 2013, the poll said. Further, it found that support for more action was equal between Labor and Greens voters and that nearly 60% of Coalition voters also agreed.
Rosemary Lyster, co-director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney, said more people are becoming sceptical of the major parties’ promises. They are also becoming aware that the Paris targets are only a modest contribution to solving the problem.
The poll also confirmed what we already know: more young people want climate action: among 18–34 year olds, 89% said more action is needed compared to 77% for those aged over 55. It would have been interesting to see the results from younger people aged, say, between 15–18 years old.
The survey also found that 86% wanted more of Australia’s energy to come from renewable energy sources; 68% agreed with putting a price on carbon emissions (which could either mean a pollution tax or tradeable permits) and 72% wanted more electric cars. It would have been interesting to see the response to a question about very fast trains and more investment in public transport.
The only conclusion to be drawn from this survey and the powerful high school strikes across Australia in the last 6 months is that the movement for climate action has outstripped what the major parties are offering to do.
As Australia’s former Chief Scientist Professor Penny Sackett said on May 16: “the time is now”. The next government must take “immediate and drastic action” as “Australians have paid dearly for the chain dragging of previous governments on climate action”.
The only solution is to keep up the pressure for change. Regardless of which major party takes government after this climate election, they have no mandate for not taking real action on climate change.