New Australian climate targets - what to look for

10 August 2015

Australia's post-2020 target needs to be a meaningful contribution to the global effort, underpinned by a credible blueprint for how to achieve emissions reductions.

The Australian Government is soon to announce a new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global commitment to combat climate change.

ANU experts have discussed what to look for from Australia's post-2020 emissions target.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised a "strong" target to take to the global climate summit in Paris in December.

The United States and China last year struck a deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions, with China committing to stop growing its emissions by 2030. The US plans deeper emissions cuts of up to 28 per cent by 2025, underpinned by a plan to cut emissions from power stations by 32 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels.

The EU targets a 40 per cent reduction by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.

Australia's targets will be taken to the United Nations climate summit in Paris, which aims to work out a new global agreement to reduce emissions and limit the impact of climate change.

Professor Ken Baldwin, Director, ANU Energy Change Institute and Deputy Director, ANU Climate Change Institute:

"The main issues to look for in the Government's announcement of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions for Australia to address climate change are:

  • That the target for emissions reductions is consistent with what is needed to keep global warming to within 2 degrees;
  • That Australia's role as a major global energy producer and a high carbon intensity economy means that it should provide leadership from the front rather than in a race to the bottom;
  • That a clearly articulated pathway to achieve the emissions target is included.

"The key to effective emissions reduction is to embrace a range of policy instruments that enable the maximum emissions abatement at least cost. Over-reliance on any one mechanism is both inefficient and risky. Joining the world-wide trend to placing an effective price on carbon that allows participation in international carbon markets is essential, but needs to be supported by incentives for early action such as strong renewable energy targets. When combined with the establishment of strict regulatory standards on emissions, these three planks - a carbon price, incentives and standards - will create a powerful strategy to achieve the required emissions goal. 

"Anything short of this will mean that even more abatement will have to be done later, at a greatly increased economic and social cost."

Associate Professor Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy Deputy Director, ANU Crawford School of Public Policy:

"Australia's post-2020 target needs to be a meaningful contribution to the global effort, underpinned by a credible blueprint for how to achieve emissions reductions in Australia. Australia is among the richest countries in the world and the highest per capita emitter among the major countries. We have better opportunities to cut emissions than many other countries, and we have a particularly strong interest in strong global climate change action because of Australia's exposure to climate change impacts and the vulnerability of our region.

"All of these reasons argue for a relatively strong target for Australia. The benchmark is high for other countries accepting Australia's pledge as an adequate one.

"The costs of achieving emissions cuts and ultimately decarbonisation are likely to be lower than thought. That has consistently been the experience. Many low carbon technologies have become better and cheaper faster than expected, and economic change is not as painful as feared. By contrast, perpetuating investments in fossil fuel assets such as new coal mines risks locking into industrial structures that will turn out to be obsolete in a world that acts strongly on climate change.

"A technical aspects to look out for in Australia's post-2020 target is the expected change in base year from 2000 to 2005. This is justifiable, but it gives a 'free kick' of around 8 percentage points: the existing 5 per cent reduction target for 2020 is equivalent to a 13 per cent reduction relative to 2005. And so any given target for 2025 or 2030, expressed relative to 2005, will 'look' stronger."

Professor Andrew Blakers, Director, Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems, ANU Research School of Engineering:

"At a national level, investments in wind and photovoltaics (PV) can rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at low net cost. Our existing fossil fuel power stations are nearing the end of their design lives. PV and wind are already competitive with new-build fossil fuel power stations, and prices will continue to decline for years to come. A program of progressive closure of our existing fossil fuel power stations allows us to reach 100 per cent renewable electricity within two decades.

"Coupled with rising minimum energy performance standards and a shift to electric cars and public transport, a halving of greenhouse gas emissions is possible at small cost over the next decade or two. The Australian government should pledge deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, because it will cost very little to do so." 

Dr Mark Howden, Director, ANU Climate Change Institute:

"Rationally, the Paris negotiations are about countries matching their emission targets to the level of concern they have about their vulnerability to climate change.  

"There is growing evidence that the climate in Australia and throughout the Asia-Pacific region is already changing and this is affecting agriculture, water resources, mining, our cities, our health and our biodiversity amongst other things. More impacts seem likely due to both climate change arising from past emissions as well as that from the future emissions trajectories being negotiated at the Paris meeting. The IPCC 5th Assessment Report identified Australia and the Asia-Pacific as being highly vulnerable to climate change. The Paris meeting can reinforce commitments to support adaptation so as to reduce this vulnerability and enhance sustainable development."

Adjunct Professor Howard Bamsey, Former Australian government climate negotiator, ANU Regulatory Institutions Network:

"On any rational analysis the government has a perfect opportunity now to get the climate change monkey off its back. Against the background of the perception that it is wilfully blind to the importance of the issue, a decision to embrace an ambitious post-2020 reduction target for Australian emissions along with a compelling and credible narrative describing the policies it will implement to achieve the target could neutralise a vulnerability for a government whose support is stubbornly in the doldrums. While Labor continues to dodge and weave on its intentions for economy wide policy instruments the Government has a moment in which it can establish a basis for some degree of bipartisan agreement of the sort enjoyed in most other countries. If it does that it will remove a growing electoral liability.

"For a target to be accepted as ambitious it would have at least to match those of the United States and Canada. These two countries have much in common with Australia apart from wide divergence at Federal level on climate change policy. All are high per capita emitters, have economically important high-emitting industries and unusually for developed countries, they may also experience relatively strong population growth in coming decades (pushing up emissions). But they are also open economies that can relatively readily adapt to changing circumstances.  In this context while every economy is unique, Australia cannot claim it is so different as to be exempt from the same obligation to deal with global climate change as countries like these have accepted."

Dr Liz Hanna, Fellow, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health and President, Climate Change and Health Alliance:

"As a country that is highly vulnerable to the ravages of climatic extremes, Australia stands to reap enormous benefits from ambitious carbon reduction targets; benefits from averted climatic extremes, as well as significant health benefits. Compared to many other OECD nations, Australia has more to lose, so our ambitions should reflect that. We need to be ahead of the pack, to be emission reduction 'lifters, not leaners'. We are now seeing climate extremes 'on steroids', and they are killing more Australians than ever before, through heat, fires, cyclones, floods and droughts (via suicides).

"Highly polluted countries can save 91 lives per tonne of CO2 reductions. Australia's air pollution is less severe, but we can still save 20 lives per tonne of CO2. Getting people out of cars and into active transport addresses our big killers, obesity, diabetes, cardiac disease and improves social amenity and mental health. Closing coal fired power stations will limit further release of harmful air particulates, known to kill thousands and cause cardiac and respiratory disease and cancers. The Hunter Valley coal generated annual health bill is $600 million. Nationally, the health costs are enormous and will keep growing until these are closed.

"If the government is worried about future health budgets, strong emission targets are a sensible economic choice, and a sensible health choice."