A climate policy that actually cuts emissions? It’s the reality that fossil fuel bosses and News Corp commentators can’t see
At some stage, policies that governments put forward to reduce emissions need to do exactly what they say on the tin.
This week’s deal between Labor and the Greens to improve a policy covering Australia’s biggest polluters does, finally, achieve that.
The details are complicated (we’ll get into them in just a little bit) but the changes to the safeguard mechanism take the country a step closer to the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – though there is still far more to do.
These are goals that consecutive Australian governments have signed up to. Yet much of the coverage and commentary around this week’s deal, particularly in conservative media, ignores this simple fact.
The Australian newspaper was the conduit for many of the fossil fuel industry’s protests that the policy would “force up power prices and put domestic gas supply at risk” according to one story, and “destroy jobs and kill foreign investment” in the coal industry, according to another.
In the Daily Telegraph, a story claimed the changes to the safeguard mechanism would risk $96bn of energy projects and these should be seen as “coal-hard facts”.
Significant portions of the fossil fuel industry appear unable to accept the cold-hard realities of atmospheric physics, the community’s demand for action, the decarbonising trajectory of global energy supplies and Australia’s obligations under global agreements that are all lining up to say the same thing on the policy tin.
Related: Labor agrees to absolute cap on emissions to secure Greens backing for safeguard mechanism climate bill
And that tin says: “Stop releasing greenhouse gases.”
First, a quick reminder of what’s happened. The safeguard mechanism is a key plank of the Labor government’s pledge to cut emissions by 43% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050.
The scheme covers about one-third of Australia’s current emissions. Any project that emits at least 100,000 tonnes of CO2 in a year (electricity generators are excluded) is included, and there are a lot of coalmines and gas projects on the list, alongside refineries, smelters and other mining operations.
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The government’s deal with the Greens ensures that gross emissions under the mechanism will be effectively capped at 140m tonnes of CO2-equivalent and then decline. Emissions covered by the scheme cannot go up.
In some ways, the safeguard mechanism is a downsized domestic version of the broader global challenge of emissions reduction.
For Australia’s – and the world’s – big emitters, the safeguard mechanism presents two very simple options.
Either companies find ways to make a profit that don’t involve liberating billions of tonnes of ancient fossil carbon, or they find ways to stop the greenhouse gases from their projects being released into the atmosphere.
If companies and their industry lobby groups were serious about their public support for keeping global temperatures to 1.5C, then there is no third option that allows emissions to keep climbing with the victims of the climate crisis sacrificed on the altar of jobs and growth.
That’s a point entirely missing from much of the commentary this week, particularly from conservative media and the fossil fuel industry.
Within this, companies will still be able to use carbon offsets to meet some of their targets says Tennant Reed, director of climate energy at the Australian Industry Group.
“But [the safeguard mechanism amendments] does make clear that overall covered emissions do have to fall over time, even before taking account of offsets. That should not be particularly controversial,” he said.
Related: Russell Brand is the latest to platform climate conservative Bjørn Lomborg’s ‘reckless’ net-zero cost claims | Temperature Check
Reed makes the point that demand for coal and gas exports will probably play a much bigger role in the fate of those sectors than the design of a domestic policy.
All of Australia’s trading partners have commitments to reach net zero over the coming decades, Reed says, so “it is hard to escape the conclusion that falling demand will eventually see exports shrink dramatically.”
“That will be a painful transition, and one over which Australia has no veto. The small consolation prize for the coal and gas sectors would be that such customer decisions would make it much easier for them to comply with the safeguard.”
One Australian coal boss told the Australian the changes to the safeguard mechanism were built on a political objective to push a “base demonisation of fossil fuels” that would threaten Australia’s role as a “reliable energy exporter” for the region.
Actually, Australia is a “reliable” exporter of fossil fuels that are helping drive up global greenhouse gas emissions, worsening the already pernicious affects of climate change that include, but are not limited to, longer and more intense heatwaves, increased risk of flooding, rising sea levels (that will threaten many coastal cities around the world), ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, longer and more intense bushfires and droughts and ever more extreme weather events.
The “demonisation of fossil fuels” – if you want to call it that – comes from basic atmospheric physics and decades of scientific endeavour now confirmed by real-world events. As much as some might like to paint that as politics, it shouldn’t be.
‘In a frenzy’
Former editor of the Australian Chris Mitchell wrote in a column in that newspaper that environment journalists and the “left media” were “in a frenzy” over the most recent release from the UN’s climate panel.
They were missing elephants in the room, he wrote, one of which was “the failure of a climate catastrophe, or anything like it, to arrive”.
“Sorry what … where has he been?,” asked an incredulous associate professor Sara Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at UNSW Canberra and expert on extreme weather events.
“Has he not seen the floods or the heatwaves or the bushfires? I don’t know what he’s looking for, but a climate catastrophe won’t happen everywhere to everyone all at the same time.
“But we’re seeing again and again and again extreme events that impact people all around the world and at different times. Those impacts are getting broader, they’re costing us more and they’re taking more lives.”
Mitchell appeared to want to present himself as a pragmatic realist, claiming the world could not – and would not – do without fossil fuels (which is a much easier position to take if you don’t accept the evidence of their damage to begin with).
Mitchell decided to quote a US-based oil company executive, who had written on LinkedIn that in “all International Energy Agency scenarios” of future energy use, oil consumption rises and natural gas consumption continues to grow.
“None of this should be a surprise to environment writers. Most just don’t report inconvenient facts,” writes Mitchell.
OK then. Here’s the first line in the oil and gas section of the IEA’s report on how it thinks global economies can reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“The energy transition envisioned in the [Net-Zero Emissions Scenario] involves a major contraction of oil and gas production with far‐reaching implications for all the companies that produce these fuels.”
Mitchell points to Germany, which has been forced into short-term fixes to bridge its energy supply crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Despite the country’s multi-trillion-dollar green energy transition plans, 53.7% of all German power last year ‘came from conventional sources such as coal, gas and nuclear power,’” Mitchell wrote, quoting another source.
Mitchell didn’t write that Germany retains its target to have 80% of all electricity generation come from renewables by 2030 and the amount of electricity consumed in Germany from renewables has climbed from about 10% in 2004 to about 47% now.