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Time running out to make prosperous transition to net zero emissions, Australia warned

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Australia risks falling short of its 2030 climate target and time is running out for it to make a prosperous transition to net zero emissions on its own terms, the independent Climate Change Authority has warned.

The authority’s annual assessment of Australia’s progress on climate said the country still had time to take advantage of the opportunities a net zero world presented, but it risked the transition to a clean economy being “dictated to us by the actions of others around the world” the longer it delayed.

It was released as part of a dump of climate reports on Thursday as the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, gave an annual statement to parliament.

Related: Chris Bowen warns global heating will fuel political instability in annual climate statement

Bowen said he was pleased with the government’s progress after a departmental analysis found it was “within striking distance” of its 2030 emissions target – a 43% cut compared with 2005 levels – but he was “not yet satisfied”.

“The job is far from done,” he said.

The Climate Change Authority found reaching the 2030 target relied heavily on rapidly accelerating the construction and connection of solar, wind and supporting energy capacity to reach an 82% renewables goal by the end of the decade, and that task was not currently on track.

The government last week pre-empted this warning – having already received the authority report – by announcing an expanded taxpayer underwriting scheme to drive the private investment needed to meet the energy goal.

The authority said at just 1.1C of heating above pre-industrial levels, the climate was changing in ways that were dangerous to humans and the natural ecosystems it relied on, and strong and urgent measures were needed to get on a safer trajectory.

It said there was broad government, business and community support in Australia for strong action, but ambition had to quickly translate into emissions cuts so that the country could manage a “just transition to a prosperous, net zero economy on our own terms”.

“As a small, open and emissions-intensive economy, reliant on inflows of foreign capital and export income as engines of growth, Australia can expect to feel the full force of the global transition to net zero emissions,” it said.

Emissions increased

A separate report showed national emissions increased in Labor’s first full year in office, rising by 0.8% in the year to June.

Officials said this was largely due to emissions rebounding after falling during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Transport emissions increased by 7.8% last financial year, reflecting the recovery from travel restrictions. Agriculture emissions were up 3.8% as crops and livestock returned to pre-drought levels. These increases were greater than the 3.5% fall in emissions from electricity generation due to solar and wind energy displacing coal.

The emissions report says national emissions were down by 24.5% since 2005. The overwhelming majority of this is due to changes in land use mostly unrelated to climate policy.

Rapid action needed

The authority found rapid action was needed across areas. Its 42 recommendations included:

  • Extending incentives for rooftop solar panels beyond 2030 and expanding them to include household batteries and private electric vehicle chargers

  • Accelerating emissions cuts from oil and gas by introducing international best practice measures to cut methane emissions and leaks, and requiring facilities to sequester all carbon dioxide pollution

  • Coordinating with state and territory governments to agree on timing for the retirement of fossil fuel generators

Bowen said the government “noted” the first two, arguing it was already acting and would consider further action when sectoral emissions plans were developed next year, and agreed in principle with the third.

The minister rejected three of the authority’s recommendations outright, including that the federal government should work with the states to coordinate a national phase-out of new and existing gas connections for homes and small commercial buildings.

He did not support a national gas ban because the states and territories differed on how to act and decisions should be left to them, while the federal government’s role was to “empower Australians with choices” through a $1.7bn energy efficiency drive.

Related: Cop28: Australia to bring evidence it can meet 2030 climate target but pressure builds over fossil fuels

Bowen also rejected a recommendation that the government should introduce a fuel efficiency standard as soon as possible with a goal of zero tailpipe CO2 emissions no later than 2040.

The minister said the government remained committed to introducing a fuel efficiency standard – an initial policy document was released earlier this year – and was “working through the design and implementation to get it right”, but was not setting net zero target for individual sectors. The final design has been delayed and is not expected until next year.

He said the government was “committed to an ambitious standard that delivers cleaner, cheaper-to-run cars for Australians and real emissions outcomes. But we also recognise that this is important work, and can’t be rushed”.

Global race for capital

In his statement, Bowen stressed the net zero transition was a global race for capital, with more than 500GW of renewable generation capacity set to be added in 2023 and the US, EU, Canada and Japan all having introduced increased clean energy incentives in a bid to draw investment.

He said the government had a “clearly articulated, ambitious plan to become a renewable energy superpower”, but there was “a global fight for supply chains”.

Labor aimed to have “sovereign domestic manufacturing of key elements of the renewable supply chain” and was designing policies to achieve this, but “this sovereignty won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen across every element of the supply chain”, he said.

Bowen said he would go to the Cop28 UN climate summit in Dubai next week arguing for stronger support for cutting emissions and climate funding arrangements for Pacific and the other most vulnerable countries that required contributions from “all major economies”.