Fact check of PM's claims on Government's climate achievements

Analysis of letter from Prime Minister on subject of climate change, received in May 2021

Prepared for ARRCC by Catherine Rossiter BA, Dip Ed, Grad Dip Pub Adm
               and David Rossiter FIE(Aust), FICE, FIAE, MEngSci, BSc, Grad Cert Pub Pol

The Prime Minister’s statements, from a recent letter to a concerned citizen, are shown in italics below, followed by our comments.

In general, this letter contains no relevant information to the aim of the Paris Agreement, which is the need to limit total atmospheric emissions so that global temperature is kept below 2 degrees C.  It talks up the Government’s investments in technologies and industries, but fails to come to grips with the urgency of the situation and the need for serious policies to reduce our reliance on coal, oil and gas.

Thank you for writing to me about climate change.

Australia is taking strong climate action as part of a coordinated global effort. We have a strong track record of setting, achieving and exceeding our commitments – and it is clear our policies are working.

While there is a coordinated global effort, there is no evidence that Australia is taking strong action.  The latest report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) in August 2021 actually ranks Australia near the bottom of the list in terms of effective action.  At the forthcoming Conference of Parties meeting in Glasgow in November, Australia will be under significant international pressure to increase its current Paris emissions reduction targets and to commit to implementing some form of price on carbon pollution.

We have met and exceeded our Kyoto commitments by 459 million tonnes, and our emissions are down 20 per cent from 2005 levels.

Our Kyoto commitments (which were very small anyway) are not relevant in the context of the Paris Agreement.  This information is a spurious attempt to claim progress that has no bearing on the current international agreement.

Research by Professor Hugh Saddler[1] has shown that most of Australia’s emissions reductions since 2005 have been due to farming activities, mainly a large fall in the amount of land-clearing.  Saddler’s report showed that if the land-clearing change was excluded from national emissions accounts, Australia’s emissions have actually increased by 7% since 2005.  A further point to note is that, because wildfires are not counted in the official figures, it is hard to know if the benefits obtained from reduction in land clearing are actually still viable, given the millions of hectares of bushland and forest which were consumed in the 2019-20 bushfires.

Saddler has also concluded that ‘despite the last decade of growth in solar and wind energy, fossil fuels still dominate Australia’s energy sector and its rate of electrification – that is, getting off coal, oil and gas for energy – is one of the worst in the OECD’.

We are well on the way to meet and beat our Paris commitment – reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. Achieving our 2030 target will see our emissions per capita fall by almost half, and by 70 per cent per unit of GDP.

Referencing emission reductions on a per capita basis, or in a ratio to GDP, is totally misleading.  The atmosphere does not care how many people are producing the emissions, nor what a country’s GDP is.  It is the total amount which matters.

Australia’s Paris target was about reducing our TOTAL emissions by 26 – 28% from 2005 levels by 2030, when the experts at the Climate Change Authority had recommended that the target reduction be at least 45%.  If that recommendation had been followed, we would have been on track for zero emissions by 2050.  Because that didn’t happen, we are now faced with the latest report from the Climate Council [2]  which advocates that Australia should aim to reduce emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035.

Following the Paris meeting, scientists estimated the total emissions that countries could emit over the period 2013 to 2050, assuming that the world would be at zero emissions by 2050, to ensure global warming stayed at less than 2 degrees.  Australia’s allocation (its carbon budget) was determined, by the CSIRO, to be 10.1 billion tonnes.

From the Government’s own published data[3], we know that Australia’s emissions from 2013 to 2021 FY has totalled 4.8 billion tonnes (averaging 537 million tonnes per year).  This leaves around 5.3 billion tonnes in our carbon budget which, at current rates, will probably be used up in the early 2030s.

This has enormous implications for international relations and trading partnerships, especially as our economy is very dependent on export sales of minerals and agricultural products.  When other countries have committed to drastic reductions to their emissions they are likely to be very hostile towards laggard countries such as Australia.

The diagram below shows how our emissions are currently tracking (with the near horizontal red and red-dashed line), the blue dashed line shows how they should be tracking if we were aiming to get to net zero by 2050, and the red vertical line shows where we ‘fall off a cliff’ once our carbon budget is used up.[4]

In addition, the EU countries have already made clear that tariffs will be added to the price of goods which come from countries where the emissions costs are not included in the source country (ie through a carbon price).  Other countries are likely to follow suit.

We are on the pathway to net zero. Our goal is to get there as soon as we possibly can by investing in technology that enables and transforms our industries – and not through taxes that eliminates them, and the jobs and livelihoods they support and create.

For Australia, it is not a question of if or when we will reach net zero, but importantly how.

For the PM to state that we are on a pathway to net zero (which he has suggested would be ‘preferably by 2050’) would have more credibility if there was evidence that Australia’s emissions are already dropping at a rate that would get us there by 2050.  But, as the diagram above shows, the current trajectory of emissions reductions would take us well beyond the middle of the century and probably into the next century.

And as for ‘how’ we get to net zero, this is surely the role of government.  Industry and citizens are all keen to play their part, but without a market signal from government the progress will be too slow.  Key government agencies have advised, through Senate Estimates enquiries, that they have not been asked to prepare an emissions reduction plan.

With regard to the technology, much of the technology that can make a serious difference already exists, and we need plans and policies to get that technology deployed across the relevant industries, making it a priority, and not diverting taxpayer funds to gas-led recoveries or activities which have minimal impact on emissions reduction.

The PM is wrong to suggest that it is not a question of if or when we will reach net zero.  As the latest IPCC report makes abundantly clear, we already have over 1 degree of warming, and the time remaining to prevent catastrophic changes to the climate is frighteningly short.  If countries haven’t achieved at least 60% emissions reductions by 2030, there will be virtually no chance of getting to net zero by 2050, and hence no chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees.

That is why we are investing in priority new technology solutions, through our Technology Investment Roadmap initiative. We are investing around $20 billion to achieve ambitious goals that will bring the cost of clean hydrogen, green steel, energy storage and carbon capture to commercial parity. We expect this to secure more than $80 billion in total investment in the decade ahead.

Through our $1.6 billion emission reduction package announced in the 2021-22 Budget, the Government is investing $275.5 million to accelerate the development of clean hydrogen hubs in regional Australia. These will transform Australia’s transport industries, mining and resource sectors, manufacturing, and fuel and energy production.

This package will also foster international collaboration to achieve technology breakthroughs, lowering energy costs and create more than 6,000 jobs, especially in our regions. These investments in future technologies complement existing policies, including the $1.9 billion investment in low emissions technologies announced in the 2020-21 Budget, our Climate Solutions Package and the Emissions Reduction Fund. So far under the Emissions Reduction Fund we have secured over 200 million tonnes of emissions reductions.

Investing in new technologies is a worthwhile thing to do, but on its own is not enough.  We need market mechanisms and policies which strengthen the technologies that make the biggest difference, and take serious steps towards phasing out fossil fuels.

‘This ignores the fact that for these technologies to work at scale, and in the short time now available, taxes in the form of carbon pricing are essential otherwise the massive subsidy enjoyed by fossil fuels, by not accounting for the damage caused by their use, will continue, markedly slowing the transition to a low-carbon future.’  [5]  

We are charting our own course to ensure Australia is well placed to prosper through the energy transition, consistent with strong action on climate change. Australia is already on track for around one-third of our electricity needs to be met by renewables in the early 2020s. Last year, Australia deployed new renewable energy over seven times faster per capita than the global average. We have the world’s highest uptake of rooftop solar – one in four households now have rooftop solar systems.

To support the deployment of renewable energy, the Government is investing in the energy infrastructure of the future. This includes investing in the Snowy 2.0 project, which will be the largest energy storage project in the Southern Hemisphere, and backing new microgrids in regional and remote communities to deliver affordable, reliable power. The Government is working with state Governments to accelerate priority transmission projects that support the integration of renewables into our energy system.

As well, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the world’s most successful green bank, has mobilised over $30 billion in new investments in our economy.

The uptake of rooftop solar has not happened because of federal government policies.  Rather, it has been encouraged by State/Territory government policies and by the general recognition that rooftop solar helps reduce power bills.  As for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, if the Government had its way, it would not only be investing in green energy.  The Government has proposed making a number of changes to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s legislation, including allowing the CEFC to invest in gas projects, invest in unprofitable projects, and provide greater powers to the Minister, Angus Taylor, to direct its investments.  To date, fortunately, the proposed changes have not been successful.

Tackling climate change requires an economy-wide approach. We are supporting the agriculture sector, with the Emissions Reduction Fund offering incentives for farmers to be paid abatement.

The National Farmers Federation has suggested that some farmers have concerns that the costs of measuring, calculating, monitoring, reporting and auditing any carbon abatement will exceed the value of the Emissions Reduction fund abatement incentive. 

Farmers are already suffering the effects of the changing climate, and many are already making significant changes to their farming practices through tree planting, water retention strategies, better stock management, no-plough tillage, changing crops, increasing biodiversity and so on.  If warming goes above 2 degrees, many of Australia’s farming regions will become unviable.

As well, we are developing a national strategy to remove barriers to consumers wanting to take-up new low emissions vehicle technology.

The Government has so far only indicated support for hybrid fossil fuel vehicles (which are already economic), but has ignored both fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, despite the fact that these can mostly or wholly operate on electricity.  There have been no policies aimed at discouraging higher emissions vehicles, or at developing a national charging network, or at encouraging the construction of electric vehicles in Australia.

Further, Australia currently imports around A$32 billion of petroleum products each year, a significant impost on our balance of payments.  And, at any given time, we only have around 29 days of supply in the country for all our transport needs (including aviation, cars and heavy vehicles).  If the government were to seriously encourage the uptake of hybrid and fully electric vehicles, our reliance on imported fuel would be reduced, our balance of payments would be improved, our national security situation would be enhanced, and many of the vehicles could be charged with local power from roof-top solar.  [6]

Australia is making a strong contribution to the global effort of tackling climate change while ensuring we continue to build a strong job creating economy.

Scott Morrison can make as many claims as he likes about Australia’s emission reduction performance, but until there are serious policies aimed at drastically reducing our dependence on coal, oil and gas, our emissions reduction progress will continue to be minimal and Australia will continue to be regarded as an international pariah in the world efforts to avoid catastrophe.


[1] Back of the Pack – an Assessment of Australia’s Energy Transition, Hugh Saddler, The Australia Institute, August 2021

[2] Aim High, Go Fast – Why emissions need to plummet this decade, Climate Council Report, 2021)

[3] Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources 2020 Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: September 2020, p60 Table 8.

[4] Climate Change Authority 2014 Targets and Progress Review Final Report February 2014, p9 Figure 1.

[5] The Net Zero Emission Illusion, by Ian Dunlop & David Spratt, Aug 2021, published in Pearls and Irritations

[6] Department of Industry, Science, Energy & Resources, Australian Petroleum Statistics, Feb 2021