When it comes to energy and carbon emissions reduction, the devil is always in the detail. So too with Australia’s plans to cut its emissions by five per cent below year 2000 levels by 2020. But first, let’s look at the big picture.
Why we need to do this
As a scientist who researches the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and other natural systems, I see an existential threat posed by global warming to our planetary boundaries. As the dominant species on this planet, we have no choice but to face up to this problem, and solve it, fully.
Will a carbon tax in Australia do this? Of course not – it is only a small piece in a very large puzzle. So why should we commit to this, and why should Australia move ahead of most of the world?
Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are a tragedy of the commons. If most nations ‘wait and see’, the commons – our atmosphere and biosphere – will be degraded, to the detriment of all people.
Without a price on carbon dioxide emissions, Australia will keep burning coal for its electricity. With an abundant and cheap supply, there is no reason to do anything else. To decide not to do this, there must be an economic justification – a trigger for change. That is what the carbon price is.
The carbon tax plan
At $23 per tonne of carbon dioxide, however, little will be immediately different. Coal will still probably be the cheapest option. So the price must rise over time – or else the carbon tax will fail to deliver.
A rising tax makes the debate about the initial price a sideshow, because businesses will plan for the future, not just for the now. A rising price with scheduled minimum gateways will make a real difference to the medium and long-term choices being made by investors (government and private sector).
Households should be compensated, because they currently have few options other than to buy what is offered. To fix this lack of choice, the energy market must also be opened to real competition. Renewables, nuclear, fossil fuels with carbon-capture-and-storage – all must be allowed to compete on a fair and level playing field. Other technology specific subsidies should be eliminated.
If we try to pick winners and ban competitors (nuclear), as we are currently doing, we risk high costs, few gains and lost time. As a nation and a leader, this is not something we can afford to get wrong.
Emissions reduction targets – it’s complicated
Now, given what I’ve said above, what is the Australian government’s actual operational plan for reaching our emissions reduction goals of five percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050? Well, as Martin Nicholson explained in this excellent analysis, the 2050 target involves a lot of hoping on the unproven.
Focusing on the short-term 2020 goal, the government’s expectation is that total national emissions will rise from the 2011 figure of 578 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2-e to 621 Mt by 2020 – a net growth over the next nine years of 7.5 percent!
Remember, the target is five percent below 2000 levels of 558 Mt, so the target number the government is seeking to reach is 530 Mt. according to the above projection, they are off by 91 Mt.
Still, the business-as-usual expectation, as explained here, was 680 Mt, so the carbon tax and other emissions reduction incentives (such as energy efficiency and renewable incentives) is expected to save about 60 Mt compared with the no policy approach.
How to fill the 91 Mt gap? Treasury modeling suggests that 15 percent of the 2020 emissions reductions will come from international pollution permits from developing countries, including clean energy projects, avoided deforestation, and so on. These are of course difficult to verify, but that’s the theory.
So, 15 percent of 621 Mt is 93 Mt being offset – so there, the government will technically meet its goal on the back of paying other people to do the job for us – if these reductions can even be proven.
Of course, this all neatly skims over the biggest problem Australia faces. We currently export 350 Mt of coal on our giant barges (known as ‘overseas carbon sequestration’) each year, and this is forecast to rise to 450 Mt by 2015. So the Prime Minister was correct when she said Australian coal has a ‘bright future’.
In climate terms, this of course makes a mockery of domestic targets. When you burn 450 Mt of coal, you release roughly 1.5 Gt (that’s billions of tonnes) of carbon dioxide into the world’s atmosphere. It doesn’t matter where it’s burned, the effect on the climate system is the same.
You’ll also note that this figure is almost 2-and-a-half times greater than our total national 2020 emissions. Yet, we’re not planning to buy international offsets to cover this.
Hypocritical? I’ll leave you to judge.
Footnote: The standard response to our coal exports is: “If we don’t export it, someone else will, so stopping our coal exports is no solution”. Strangely, we don’t use that same argument with respect to refusing to supply heroin, or indeed any other illicit or dangerous substances, to the international market.
First published on 1 Aug 2011 on Our World Today