What to expect when you’re expecting… the federal government to shift on climate any day now.

While discussing Morrison’s increasingly hypothetical crab walk toward net zero, it’s important to keep returning to the fact that the ‘debate’ on net zero is being stage managed and drawn out intentionally. This will-he-won’t-he narrative is one that has been seeded to the media by his own team. The question to ask then is ‘Why?’

My theory is that this is done to control a bad story and confound the voting public with a false debate. It is a strategy that has been employed by those who seek deny the need to act on climate change for several decades now, and one that continues to be effective today.

And so they highlight a few good things, but conveniently leave out catastrophically important context:

  • Almost $20 billion dollars of investment in climate solutions most of which this government has tried to kill through a series of failed attempts to neuter investment rules, repeal the laws creating the funds, or direct to fund fossil fuels instead of clean energy
  • 20% reduction in emissions against 2005 levels that mostly happened before this government came to power eight years ago, and in sectors that the federal government has no control over
  • Record-breaking investment in renewable energy including rooftop solar that this federal government has taken almost every single opportunity to undermine and obstruct
  • Meet-and-beat our climate goals that demonstrate a world-beatingly pathetic level ambition and that we can only meet by gaming them

But it seems like the federal government is going to shift a little over the next week. Here’s what we can expect.

First let’s bring you up to speed…

In part one of my series on Morrison’s crab walk to net zero , I raised two important principles relating to Australia’s role in international climate ambition. First that we’re a big part of the problem and second that Australia’s main contributions to international climate diplomacy have been obstructionism, delay and low ambition.

Australia’s formal climate target as committed to under the Paris Agreement of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. We’ve had two previous targets, both under a separate agreement: the Kyoto Protocol. There is some finesse in how to calculate these other targets, but following the principles used by the government:

  • Over the years 2008–2012 inclusive, average emissions should be less than 8% above 1990 levels.
  • Over the years 2013–2020 inclusive, emit less than a trajectory drawn between 8% above 1990 levels in 2010, and 5% below 2000 levels in 2020.

The three targets look like this, with the coloured blocks being the budgets, the solid line being emissions, and the dashed line being forward projections if we do nothing more.

Chart showing Australia’s performance against its previous targets and expected performance against Paris, as described in text. According to the most recent version of the the federal government’s emissions projections, Australia meets its first two goals under the Kyoto Protocol, but is expected to narrowly fail its goal under the Paris Agreement.
Chart showing Australia’s performance against its previous targets and expected performance against Paris, as described in text. According to the most recent version of the the federal government’s emissions projections, Australia meets its first two goals under the Kyoto Protocol, but is expected to narrowly fail its goal under the Paris Agreement.
This is simplified for the sake of clarity. QELRC’s aren’t relevant to normal people. Don’t @ me. Data source: Australia’s Emissions Projections 2020

As you can see from the chart, Australia did in fact meet both of its first two goals, emitting less than the budgeted amount in both periods. Because the budget is calculated over the whole of the period (2008–2012 and 2013–2020), it didn’t even come particularly close at emitting more than either of the goals.

Australia’s goals were seriously sub-par in both instances. If you strip out emissions from land management (aka “LULUCF”), put everything onto the same base year of 1990, and just look at the end points of each target, here are Australia’s three commitments so far compared with those of our international peers.

Bar chart showing Australia’s three commitments for the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement compared with the average commitment from our international peers after standardising reporting. Under the first commitment to Kyoto, Australia’s commitment is an increase of 57%, while our peers average a 6% reduction. Under the second, Australia’s is an increase of 38%, while our peers averaged a 20% reduction. Under Paris, Australia’s target is an increase of 7%, while our peers average a 52% reduction.
Bar chart showing Australia’s three commitments for the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement compared with the average commitment from our international peers after standardising reporting. Under the first commitment to Kyoto, Australia’s commitment is an increase of 57%, while our peers average a 6% reduction. Under the second, Australia’s is an increase of 38%, while our peers averaged a 20% reduction. Under Paris, Australia’s target is an increase of 7%, while our peers average a 52% reduction.
The peers chosen here are the 30 nations that were both listed in annex I of the UNFCCC and are members of the OECD today. There’s a Climate Council report coming very soon that dives deep into comparisons between these nations. (Data and sources: Australian and international emissions; KP1 targets; KP2 targets; 2030 targets)

When climate advocates like myself say that Australia’s climate target is woeful, and our track record appalling, this is the kind of thing that we are talking about.

And when we bemoan the ‘Australia clause’ (technically known as article 3.7 ter of the Kyoto Protocol) and say that it is the single most consequential emissions reporting fudge factor Australia has up its sleeve, you should believe us. In the words of the Parliamentary Library:

This is important for Australia because, in 1990, national forestry and land clearing activities represented net sources of emissions. Reducing these activities from what they were in 1990 therefore counts as an emission reduction, without actually reducing direct emissions. [emphasis added]

The way article 3.7 ter works, there is an exceedingly short list of countries that can lean on the rule. After all, there is a reason that the rule is colloquially known as ‘the Australia clause’. It’s because very, very few nations were doing enough land clearing in 1990 to qualify and if you don’t qualify for that rule, you can’t count land management in the total. I only know one country that does.

The false comparison between emissions reporting that is comparing Australia’s emissions with land management emissions included to emissions of other countries without including land management emissions is being used to pull the wool over your eyes today, as shown in this tweet thread from simon holmes à court.

As Simon demonstrates in that thread, the very, very vast majority of emissions reductions that have occurred in Australia to date across any sector have come from the land sector. The table below shows the change in our position in the land sector, compared to our change everywhere else.

Table showing the change in emissions over time in the land management sector, and every other sector. In short, while emissions from land management have gone from being Australia’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions to zero between 1990 and today, emissions from everything else has increased dramatically.
Table showing the change in emissions over time in the land management sector, and every other sector. In short, while emissions from land management have gone from being Australia’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions to zero between 1990 and today, emissions from everything else has increased dramatically.
I’m using 2019 as a stand-in for ‘the present’ to avoid the misleading with the impact of COVID-19 on emissions. Data Source: Australia’s Emissions Projections 2020.

You can explore this data interactively at OpenNEM’s new Australian emissions tool here.

In the lead-up to the Glasgow climate summit in a few weeks, there has been a huge amount of momentum for nations, especially wealthy nations like Australia, to increase their 2030 commitments. Over the past year and a bit, the UK, EU, USA, Japan, and Canada have all dramatically increased their ambition. New Zealand expressed an intention to, but there’s a bit of a ‘will they, won’t they’ about what will be announced ahead of the conference and what will happen next year. Even Turkey – which has long been one of the very few hold-out on ratifying the Paris Agreement – has agreed to ratify the treaty and be bound by its commitment.

Meanwhile, Australia has largely sat at the back of the classroom, hoping not to be called on by the teacher. It simply hadn’t done its homework – by increasing its 2030 commitment – and was hoping that it might be able to coast by with finally saying the word’s ‘net zero by 2050’ without qualification. Well, maybe without qualification.

The pressure for revised 2030 commitments is becoming untenable though, and so the lazy student has to scramble something together at the last minute. But it won’t be what anyone is actually asking for.

Political correspondents briefed by the government are reporting most recently that the government will not increase their 2030 goal, but will instead submit a revised set of projections showing that Australia will exceed the current goal. The source named in that story describes the distinction between the projections and a revised 2030 target as a matter of ‘semantics’, which of course it isn’t. Remember this chart from earlier?

Bar chart showing Australia’s three commitments for the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement compared with the average commitment from our international peers after standardising reporting. Under the first commitment to Kyoto, Australia’s commitment is an increase of 57%, while our peers average a 6% reduction. Under the second, Australia’s is an increase of 38%, while our peers averaged a 20% reduction. Under Paris, Australia’s target is an increase of 7%, while our peers average a 52% reduction.
Bar chart showing Australia’s three commitments for the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement compared with the average commitment from our international peers after standardising reporting. Under the first commitment to Kyoto, Australia’s commitment is an increase of 57%, while our peers average a 6% reduction. Under the second, Australia’s is an increase of 38%, while our peers averaged a 20% reduction. Under Paris, Australia’s target is an increase of 7%, while our peers average a 52% reduction.

The international community’s expectations were really clearly explained by my colleague Dr Wes Morgan in a piece for The Conversation the other day. The emissions projections show what Australia is capable of should it do literally nothing more than they are already doing. The international community isn’t interested in a revised set of projections showing that Australia can meet its manifestly insufficient target with no effort. They are openly interested in increased ambition.

The relevant party room meetings to determine whether to agree on this approach are scheduled for Sunday (National Party) and Monday (Liberal Party). And the announcement should come very close to then.

Who knows what the projections will say? We do.

About a month ago, another journalist with the same outlet as the above (who likewise referred to having been briefed by the government) said that the revised projections showed that Australia would be 32–36% below 2005 levels in 2030 on a business as usual. Sounds like a big number that is starting to be comparable with the United States pledge to be 50% below 2005 levels in 2030, but it’s worth remembering that trick with land management emissions. The USA isn’t able to lean on that, Australia is. For Australia, a 32% reduction on 2005 levels including LULUCF is a fairly narrow reduction below 2005 on an ex LULUCF basis: likely around 20%. Compared with 1990 emissions, it is essentially the same.

But I don’t buy it. Including land management, the 2020 projections had Australia at 22% below 2005 levels in 2030. To get from 22% below 2005 levels in the 2020 projections to 32%+ below 2005 levels in the 2030 emissions requires either significant new policy or significant trickery. There has been no significant climate policy announcement by the Australian federal government this year. Indeed, with the amount of money being thrown at the gas industry, the federal role is far more likely to see emissions increase than decrease. While it is possible that the projections have considered some of the large state-based schemes recently announced, they ordinarily don’t and I find this unlikely.

Given this, I suspect that the “32%” reduction can only be after applying expired emissions allocations from the Kyoto Protocol to the total. Ladies, gentlemen and non-binary folks, we are back to the issue of carryover credit again!

By the way, the video below swears. A lot.

It is worth noting that while it has been widely reported that Australia has abandoned its position on the use of these credits in the Paris era – and indeed Juice Media’s video is kind of premised on that fact – the Prime Minister never said actually said anything more than that he didn’t expect to need them in order to reach our 2030 target.

It’s tea-leaf reading to a certain degree – and perhaps even a flimsy thread – but it is notable that in the same story where the 2030 position in the projections were leaked, the journalist in questions used the word “overachieve” – in quotation marks! – to describe Australia’s position in 2030.

For someone who has been following the issue as long as me, this rings alarm bells. In an Orwellian twist, the Department – who have long been the authors of the projections – have recently begun refer to expired credits from the Kyoto era (i.e. “Kyoto credits”, “carryover credits”) as “overachievement” when applying them to our national accounts. Indeed, they have only ever used that term in the context of Kyoto credits. Here are two paragraphs from the 2020 report, which describe – in turn – Australia’s actual 2030 position, and then Australia’s position after applying expired credits from previous periods to the total:

Australia’s abatement task to meet the 2030 target is projected to be between 56 Mt CO2-e (26% reduction) and 123 Mt CO2-e (28% reduction) over the period 2021 to 2030. This is equivalent to between 1.2% of the emissions budget (26% target) and 2.6% of the emissions budget (28% target).

When past overachievement is included, Australia overachieves on the 2030 target by between 403 million tonnes (26% target) and 336 million tonnes (28% target). Under a scenario aligned with the Technology Investment Roadmap, Australia is expected to overachieve on its 2030 target by 145 Mt CO2-e.

Of course, application of these credits from previous periods is wholly illegitimate. Here’s a tweet thread from me explaining why. Here’s a report by the international climate consultancy Climate Analytics explaining why. Here’s a bunch of Australia’s most esteemed international lawyers explaining why. Here’s one of the two people who might be called the ‘architect of the Paris Agreement’ saying that their inclusion would ‘destroy the whole Paris Agreement’. AND HERE IS THE OTHER ONE SAYING THE EXACT SAME THING.

But I’m sure it will all be fine.

I mean, it’s no secret to anyone paying attention that Australia always plays an obstructive role at the UNFCCC conferences. After all, Australia’s insistence on this nonsense is a very very large part of why – with the Paris Agreement’s commitment periods already begun – there still is no functioning mechanism to trade emissions reductions between countries. That said, for Australia to try to pass this kind of spreadsheet magic off as climate action at this point in history has to be a special new low point.

The reality is that we need to do far more to be taken seriously on the international stage. Our major allies are announcing targets to halve their emissions, or better, this decade. Australia should do the same. At best, Australia would be laughed out of the room at COP if it doesn’t match this. At worst, the diplomatic and economic consequences could be far more severe.

As a wealthy nation, with so much to gain from a net zero future — and so much to lose from failure to reduce emissions as urgently as the science demands — Australia should be doing so much more than just the bare minimum.

While our allies and key trading partners are stepping up their own ambitions, Australia is stepping up the degree to which it cooks the books.

While this kind of analysis is my day job, the stuff on this site is my own work, done outside of hours on my own time. I don’t ask for money for it, but claps, shares, retweets and generally knowing people find it useful is what keeps me going. I would love it if you could throw me some of it.

And under the circumstances, it goes without saying that this is all personal opinions, etc.

Researcher at the Climate Council of Australia, but these are my opinions written on my own time.