The government is playing a dangerous game with our climate

The Australian government needs to do some serious work on its climate policies, Richie Merzian writes.

The Australian government needs to do some serious work on its climate policies, Richie Merzian writes.

Australia leads the world when it comes to claims that we are leading the world – whether it’s on our vaccine rollout, our generous welfare system or our management of world heritage sites.

Nowhere is Australia’s world-leading swagger more evident than in our claims about our climate efforts: From ‘meeting and beating’ climate targets to declarations that Australia is leading on renewable energy.

What makes these claims so dangerous is that the climate is changing fast and it’s often changing in ways we can reverse.

Climate targets continue to be missed

The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global consensus on climate science, is a powerful and painful read.

It leaves absolutely no doubt that climate change is caused by humans – and emissions from burning fossil fuels is the key cause.

The response to the past five IPCC reports (stretching back 33 years) has been a collective failure and we now know the world will pass the threshold of 1.5 degrees of global warming in the next two decades.

We simply can’t afford to ignore this report.

So we must address the fact that Australia is still heavily dependent on coal, oil and gas for our energy system (including electricity, heating and transport).

New research from Hugh Saddler for The Australia Institute shows, with the exception of Poland (which generates about 75 per cent of its electricity from coal), Australia has the most emissions-intensive energy system among wealthy, developed OECD countries.

It doesn’t matter how you look at it – whether it’s though the lens of energy efficiency, per capita emissions, energy productivity or share of new renewable energy – things are bad.

It is true the past decade has seen a lot more solar and wind power in Australia, however other similar countries have done better and moved faster.

When compared to 23 OECD countries and Russia, Australia ranks 15th in terms of the change in the share of energy generation from new renewables from 2005 to 2019.

A global report cites Australia’s 2020 bushfires as an example of a climate change security risk.

Countries ahead of Australia include the UK, Ireland and Belgium, none of which come close to benefiting from the land area or solar resources we have here.

Focus misses the goal

Turning to other aspects of the energy sector that might paint a more positive picture of Australia’s achievements, things are also grim.

The government has prioritised energy productivity (the amount of bang for your buck from each unit of energy) to meet our climate targets.

Improving energy productivity is one of the easiest and cheapest options for reducing emissions and dealing with rising energy costs, and generally involves implementing energy efficiency measures and electrifying (think electric cars, heaters, cooktops and generators).

Australia has a National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP) designed to enhance energy productivity by 40 per cent between 2015 and 2030.

Yet for the past 15 years Australia’s energy productivity has increased by only 5 per cent. When compared again with other OECD countries, Australia achieved the second smallest increase in energy productivity, ahead of only Portugal.

The bottom line

The Australian government can make as many claims as it wants, but it needs to lift its game in real terms. And that means getting off fossil fuels.

The Australian government claims the country’s emissions have decreased 20 per cent on 2005 levels, yet it is widely accepted – even by members of the government like the former minister for resources, Senator Matt Canavan – that this has all come from how we use our land, including changes to land clearing laws and drought impacts, not how we generate our energy.

Australian governments have gotten away with walking both sides of the climate street for decades, telling the international audience that we are serious about reducing emissions while assuring the gas and coal industry back at home that their $10.3 billion in annual subsidies are still safe.

But the double game is getting harder to play.

In fact last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison was denied an invitation to a leaders’ climate ambition summit because his government’s climate policies were not ambitious enough.

Climate change and La Nina have been linked to wild weather hitting Australia’s east coast.

The findings in the IPCC report will not come as a surprise to many of us – most Australians have, or are, directly experiencing the extreme temperatures, fires and flooding, brought about by our changing climate.

While a change in climate policy is so desperately needed in our country, if history is anything to go by, this report is likely to see the government cling even more stubbornly to its misleading claims.

This is particularly concerning given the IPCC report sounds the alarm on the concentration of climate-damaging methane – the key component of natural gas – which has increased 156 per cent since pre-industrialisation. It is therefore alarming the Morrison government is still championing public support for a natural gas-fired recovery.

If getting off fossil fuels were an Olympic event, Australia wouldn’t have just missed out on medals, we wouldn’t have even made a final.

Yet when it comes to talking our non-achievements up, however, we’re winning gold all the way.

How long can the Australian government play this dangerous game?

Richie Merzian is the climate & energy program director at independent think tank, The Australia Institute. Follow him on Twitter @RichieMerzian

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