Morrison government should be 'doing more' with states driving 33% cut in emissions by 2030

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Report says Coalition should lift ambition with existing target likely to be met due to renewables in NSW, Victoria and Queensland

close up of white wind turbines against blue sky
Climate action by the Australian states, including NSW’s recent renewable energy legislation, is likely to help cut national emissions by at least 33% by 2030, a new report says. Photograph: Shepic/Alamy Stock Photo
Climate action by the Australian states, including NSW’s recent renewable energy legislation, is likely to help cut national emissions by at least 33% by 2030, a new report says. Photograph: Shepic/Alamy Stock Photo
Environment editor

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 17.27 EST

Climate action by Australia’s states will put the country on track for a deeper cut in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade than proposed by the Morrison government, according to a new report that calls for a review of how much more the country can do.

A bulletin from Frontier Economics, a firm that has provided modelling on energy and climate policy for the government, found if the states delivered on their expected commitments, the country would make at least a 33% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

The federal Coalition’s target is a 26-28% cut. It claimed last week that official emissions projections showed the country was on track to meet it. In reality, the report found emissions were projected to be just 22% below 2005 levels in 2030.

National emissions are already about 16% below 2005 levels, and the official projections found they were likely to fall by only another 6.8% over the next 10 years. Analysts said this was due to a lack of federal climate policy.

But the federal data does not yet include the New South Wales renewable energy legislation that recently passed state parliament and should underwrite 12 gigawatts of solar and wind – roughly equivalent to all the clean generation in the national grid – over the next decade.

With all states having a target or aspiration of net zero emissions by 2050 – a goal the Morrison government is resisting – Frontier Economics looked at what state governments planned to do over the next decade and found, as a result, a national 33% cut was a conservative estimate. Most of the heavy lifting would be done by NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Matt Harris, the firm’s head of climate change and renewables, said debate in Australia remained stuck on whether the country could meet its target when this was now a non-issue, and the real question was how much more it should be doing. In 2015, the Climate Change Authority’s advice was equivalent to a 45-65% cut.

Harris said action to date showed deeper cuts in emissions by 2030 would not be a “wrecking ball through the economy”, as the federal emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, claimed before the last election.

“They should at least be investigating doing more,” Harris said. “Clearly you can drop the plan to use the Kyoto [carryover] credits – you’re just not going to need them.

“It is also important to remember the targets are arbitrary. If you have already met the target, why don’t you reconsider it? I think that’s what should come next.”

Harris said the main casualty of the focus on whether targets could be met had been Labor re-considering its commitment to a 45% emissions target for 2030 on the basis it would be too hard to meet, when the evidence suggested otherwise.

He said the states were the “saving grace” on emissions reductions. NSW has a 35% target for 2030, Queensland a 30% target, and the analysis assumes Victoria will eventually opt for a 45% goal (expert advice recommended a cut of between 45% and 60%).

The Morrison government was embarrassed last week when the prime minister was denied a speaking slot at a global climate ambition summit hosted by Britain, France and the UN. Leaders were told they would be offered a speaking berth only if they planned to make new climate commitments.

The prime minister had planned to announce the government was “very confident” it would not have to use the carryover credits from the expiring Kyoto protocol to meet its Paris target. But the international community had already signalled its opposition to the credits being used, with the plan having been described as “cheating” after the last major climate conference, and dropping the idea was not seemed a significant enough step forward.

Australia joined Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand in not being offered a speaking slot. Morrison instead made his planned announcement at a Pacific Islands forum on Friday night.

More than 70 countries spoke at the summit. Commitments before or at the event included:

  • Britain pledging a 68% emissions cut by 2030 compared with 1990 levels and saying it would stop financing fossil fuel projects abroad.

  • Canada saying it would raise its carbon price to C$15 a tonne a year from 2023 to reach C$170 by 2030.

  • Germany promising nearly €500m in international climate finance, on top of its existing commitment of €4bn a year.

  • Finland, Austria and Sweden setting net zero targets for 2035, 2040 and 2045 respectively.

  • Pakistan saying it would scrap plans for new power plants.

  • The European Union backing a 55% emissions cut by 2030 compared with 1990.

  • Barbados and the Maldives saying they were aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030.

  • Japan and South Korea, which both recently announced net zero targets for 2050, saying they would soon increase their 2030 goals. Japan also pledged $1.5bn for the green climate fund to help developing countries.

  • China, which in September surprised the world by setting a net zero goal for no later than 2060, marginally strengthened its 2030 goals, including that it would get about 25% of its primary energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030. It would have about 1,200 gigawatts of installed wind and solar power.

Chinese president, Xi Jinping, told the summit: “China always honours its commitments.”

But some observers were disappointed that China and India, which repeated a pledge to double its renewable energy target to 450 gigawatts by 2030, had not gone further and called for greater commitments before the next major climate conference in Glasgow next year. The US was not at the event, but president-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris agreement and host his own climate summit of major economies within 100 days of taking office.

The UK’s business secretary, Alok Sharma, who will be president of the Glasgow event, told the weekend summit that the world was not on track to fulfil the Paris agreement and limit global heating to 1.5C.

Australia’s official emissions projections suggest the country will be just 22% below 2005 by 2030 without the use of carryover credits, but also says emissions could be reduced by 29% if the government’s technology investment roadmap policy is counted.

It is not clear from the document how the latter number is reached. Analysts from RepuTex said the roadmap was not expected to lead to cuts over the next decade.