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Leading climate researchers have overwhelmingly rejected the federal government’s claim it is on track to cut greenhouse gas emissions target as promised under the 2015 Paris agreement.
Guardian Australia asked economists and scientists, including people who have advised the Coalition and Labor, whether Australia was likely to meet the 2030 target of a 26-28% emissions cut below 2005 levels under existing policy settings, as cabinet ministers have claimed.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has repeatedly said the target would be met “in a canter”.
Nine of the 12 who responded either dismissed Morrison’s statement outright or strongly suggested new policies would be needed. Only one expressed confidence the target would be met if the government did nothing – and he also criticised the Coalition’s stance.
Emissions are likely to continue to increase
The remaining two said the question was impossible to answer definitively, and that it was a red herring given Australia needed to do much more than it promised in Paris if it was to play its part in limiting global warming to 2C or less.
Bill Hare, the Perth-based director of global institute Climate Analytics, said scientific assessment of Australia’s policy settings by the Climate Action Tracker showed there was virtually no chance the target would be met without new policies.
“There is absolutely no quantitative scientific basis that I am aware of for the government’s repeated claims that it will meet the Paris agreement target. In fact, the reverse is true – its emissions are likely to continue to increase,” he said.
Hare said electricity emissions were falling due to the 2020 renewable energy target but the government had promised not to replace it, and emissions from other sectors of the economy – industry, transport, agriculture – would continue to grow in the absence of comprehensive policies.
The Grattan Institute’s energy program director, Tony Wood, said the government’s own published numbers showed it was not on track and if Australia did meet its target it would be more due to good luck than good management. Rather than meeting the target in a canter, he said the government needed “a different horse – or at least to get ready to gallop”.
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior research associate with the University of New South Wales climate change research centre, highlighted government data showing national emissions rose by 1.3% last year and Department of Environment and Energy projections suggesting emissions would be only 5% below 2005 levels in 2030.
“Given that the national energy guarantee [Neg], which would have reduced emissions from the Australian energy sector, has been dumped, there seems to be very few strategies in place,” she said.
Dire warning ignored
On Monday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a special report that global warming since pre-industrial times could reach 1.5C by as early as 2030, worsening the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty. The Australian government has rejected the suggestion it should be doing more, and the IPCC’s finding that coal power would effectively need to be phased out by 2050.
Why did they knife [Malcolm Turnbull] over a scheme that made no difference?
Asked on the ABC on Tuesday how the government would meet the 2030 target, the environment minister, Melissa Price, listed the Direct Action emissions reduction fund – which has only $250m left of an initial $2.55bn – the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the proposed Snowy 2.0 hydro scheme.
The managing director of Frontier Economics, Danny Price, a former adviser to the Coalition on climate policy, was the sole respondent who thought current policies would meet the 2030 target. He said the combination of the renewable energy target, separate federal and state schemes to drive clean energy and reduce electricity use at times of high demand, and the increased cost of power would all contribute.
But Danny Price ridiculed the government’s shift from supporting emissions cuts under to the Neg to arguing they were not needed to meet the Paris target. “Why did they knife [Malcolm Turnbull] over a scheme that made no difference? Idiots,” he said.
Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, who last year reviewed the national electricity market for the government, only to see one of his central recommendations – the introduction of a clean energy target – rejected, said the transition to a low-emissions economy would take decades, require action in many sectors and would only happen if public policy adapted. His advice called for a whole-of-economy emissions reduction strategy for 2050 to be put in place by 2020.
Finkel suggested the government could meet its Paris commitments but it would require policies to develop further. “I am confident that we will comfortably meet the existing targets in the electricity sector and, with an evolving suite of policy measures, it is possible to meet the whole-of-economy targets as well,” he said.
Even meeting that inadequate target, which is not possible … would be consistent with a 3C-plus world
Peter Newman, distinguished professor at Curtin University sustainability policy pnstitute and a lead author of an IPCC chapter on the global response to the climate change threat, said Australia was positioned to make a 26% “in a canter” in two sectors of the economy – electricity and the land, where the government had helped to some degree through reforestation programs. But he said Australia had been slow to move on transport emissions and had a problem with its rapidly growing liquid natural gas industry.
Frank Jotzo, research director at the Australian National University Crawford school of public policy, said it was possible Australia could meet an even stronger 2030 target if effective and consistent low-emissions policies were introduced across the economy, but not as things stood.
Jotzo was one of four respondents who stressed it was wrong to only consider whether Australia would meet the Coalition’s 2030 target, as it fell short of its share of the Paris climate agreement goal to limit global warming to 2C or less. Turnbull and the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, when environment minister, previously acknowledged Australia would have to adopt more ambitious targets under the Paris deal.
Will Steffen, an emeritus professor at ANU’s Fenner school of environment and society and a member of the Climate Council, said the 2030 target was woefully inadequate if Australia was to meet its Paris commitments. “Even meeting that inadequate target – which is not possible under present policy settings – would be consistent with a 3C-plus world, not a 1.5-2C world,” he said.
Andy Pitman, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at UNSW, said asking whether Australia would meet its current 2030 target was a red herring. “An appropriate goal is to decarbonise national economies well before 2050,” he said.
Warwick McKibbin, an ANU public policy fellow, senior fellow at the US Brookings Institution and former Reserve Bank of Australia board member, was more cautious than other respondents, warning it was impossible to definitively predict where Australian emissions would go.
He said any precise opinion offered in response to the question was more a political statement than rigorous analysis, but added: “What can be said is that a policy with a clear carbon price will make it more likely that Australia will hit its 2030 target.”