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  • Your guide to the federal government’s climate spin — before it’s announced

Your guide to the federal government’s climate spin — before it’s announced



In July this year the UN ranked Australia dead last out for climate action out of more than 170 countries surveyed. Yes, our federal government’s climate policies are literally the worst in the world. But while Australia is a global laggard in reducing pollution, we’re something of a leader in covering up this failure and getting away with it.

The history of Aussie climate spin goes back to an earlier climate agreement called the Kyoto Protocol. At the last minute, the Howard government negotiated to allow emissions from land use changes — essentially deforestation — to be counted in the baseline year, 1990.

Why? Because there was a lot of deforestation in Australia in 1990, and emissions from land use spiked. Against that artificially high baseline, emissions in future years were bound to look pretty good. As a result, we were able to keep increasing our pollution from burning coal, gas and oil, and then boast about meeting a target that was ludicrous in the first place.

Makes you proud, don’t it? This dodgy accounting trick was later dubbed the ‘Australia clause’, and has set the tone for Australia’s role in UN climate negotiations ever since.

So as the Morrison government prepares to head to the UN climate talks in Glasgow, what other world-class sneakiness do they have in store? And what do all those percentage targets being bandied about mean anyway? Here’s a short guide to prepare you for this week’s spin in advance.


'Don’t believe any arguments about little old Australia being too small to make a difference. Australia is actually the world’s largest exporter of LNG and one of the top two exporters of coal.' 


Net zero is a distraction

First, the whole debate about net zero by 2050 is a political sideshow. Nearly every country in the world, plus all the Australian states and territories, have already signed up to this goal. It’s a given the federal government will too. But the federal Coalition is deliberately having a loud, public debate about a distant target so they don’t have to talk about taking action in the immediate term.

2030 trickery

What really matters is the next decade. This is the main game for COP26 in Glasgow — world leaders are being urged to update their pledges for how quickly they can cut emissions by 2030.

Australia still had the target Tony Abbott set years ago — cutting emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030. At the time, the Coalition government argued this was in step with what the US was doing. Now the US has moved on, aiming for emissions cuts of 50-52 per cent by 2030. Most of Australia’s important international allies have also adopted this range or better. The UK’s conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnston, for example, has pledged to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030.

Not only is Australia’s target out of step with other developed nations, it’s actually even worse than it first appears. That’s because our 26-28 per cent target includes emissions cuts from avoiding deforestation or changes to land use. Reducing emissions from land use is legitimate but, as Climate Action Tracker explains, this sector has ‘been used by governments to obscure a lack of progress in reducing fossil fuel emissions’. Once land use change is removed from our target, Australia is actually only aiming to cut emissions by 11-15 per cent by 2030.

Piggybacking off the states

As a Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s instinct has been to do the bare minimum required to alleviate public pressure. So if the Coalition does decide to increase Australia’s 2030 climate target — and it’s a big if — the question he will probably ask himself is: what’s the smallest increase I can get away with?

In this case, the bare minimum is to commit to what Australia will achieve anyway without any federal help. Last week ClimateWorks added up existing emissions reductions commitments from state governments and found they equate to a de-facto target of 37-42 per cent by 2030.

Rumours circulating in the press hint that the federal government might say Australia is on track for this sort of range, without actually committing to a new target. Whatever the case, remember that the Morrison government is really just claiming credit for the hard work of state governments.

The Technology Roadmap to nowhere

As part of their climate announcement, the Morrison government is likely to release an update to their Technology Investment Roadmap, which sets out policies to reduce the costs of particular technologies. Unfortunately many of the technologies chosen aren’t truly clean or zero emissions — they include carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen produced with fossil fuels. There’s no renewable energy in there, no assessment of how emissions can be reduced and no pathway to reach our 2030 target.

Cooking the climate with gas

Gas is a dirty, leaky fuel and shouldn’t be considered a major part of the clean energy transition. But over the next few months Energy Minister Angus Taylor will probably be spruiking it as a kind of ‘bridging fuel’ in between coal and renewables. This is very outdated thinking because any new gas infrastructure we build now is likely to lock in more pollution for decades.

Last week, News Corp’s new ‘Mission Zero’ series included an explainer on the pros and cons of gas that failed to mention the key climate concern: gas is mostly composed of methane, which has a global warming effect 86 times higher than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. In fact, the latest IPCC report revealed that methane is already responsible for 0.5 degrees of current warming. Research in Australia has found this methane leakage may be much higher than assumed, which makes the government’s so-called ‘gas-fired recovery’ look like a climate disaster.

The International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap recommends no new gas fields approved for development after 2021. This is necessary to have a 50 per cent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2100.

Exporting pollution to the world

Don’t believe any arguments about little old Australia being too small to make a difference. Australia is actually the world’s largest exporter of LNG and one of the top two exporters of coal. That makes us the third-largest exporter of carbon pollution embedded in fossil fuels, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

If these exports are taken into account, Australia is responsible for up to 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And if future fossil fuel developments go ahead, including the Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin, then Australia could be linked to up to 17 per cent of world carbon pollution.

If you keep these things in mind, you might make it through the week without falling for one of the federal Coalition’s cunning climate tricks. Good luck.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a writer, illustrator and author of the memoir Changing Gears. His non-fiction and cartoons have appeared in The Age, The Saturday Paper, ABC, Meanjin, Eureka Street and others. His fiction has appeared in The Big Issue, Aurealis and Overland. He currently works in  communications for an environment charity.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston 

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, climate policy, UN, COP26, net zero, 2030



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Existing comments

Timely, fair and correct in assessment of the Australian criticisms but misses addressing motives and timing of other nations pushing the "Net zero". Germany and England were some of the biggest domestic users of coal; their primary "export" was their coal mining technologies. The massive mining machines were developed in the Rhine and Ruhr valleys to rip up incomprehensible tonnes of coal but the machines also sold internationally by Krupp, O&K, VoestAlpine...and then they ran out of coal. They still sell the machines...go figure. Economically, energy is power; oil, gas and coal drive nations to success; wind and solar are emerging but unharnessed and no nation owns the deposit, it comes and goes but how do you set royalties on daylight? In reality, the means to value "energy" is held by those who sell it based on extraction costs; if it's uneconomical to dig it up they won't dig. Buyers control the price to a degree but based on supply availabilities. Currently Europe is totally exposed to supply cost, we can talk about "spin" but those nations most vocal in the carbon debate have burned their candle away and want to tell us how much they'll restrict our asset. Thanks.

ray | 18 October 2021  

I must confess, before I thoroughly read through your short, dense, fact-packed article, I thought you might be a 'loonie Greenie', which is not a nice way to think of anyone, Greg. It is probably age. My apologies. I am not sure what the Glasgow gabfest, which our PM is reluctantly attending, will achieve. My gut feeling tells me we need to bite the bullet about the new, much safer nuclear power reactors, which are the reliable source of future energy. Rather than attend these gabfests I think we need to go our own way sanely.

Edward Fido | 19 October 2021  
Show Responses

The nuclear EPR unit at Flamanville France has been under construction for 14 years. The reactor is a leaky, expensive mess. The estimated start-up date is now 2024. Another “U beaut” EPR reactor in Finland has been under construction since 2005. The latest estimate for start of regular production is February 2022. Hilarious.

Emily | 19 October 2021  

Edward, tend to agree but nuclear is clean in the short term but very costly and will take years to implement. We need climate change actions now and other renewables are quicker, cheaper and can have an effect earlier.

Bernie | 19 October 2021  

What will it take to convince the indefatigable supporters of nuclear power to recognize that nuclear power is irrelevant in Australia, despite our uranium reserves? Nuclear power has been plagued with safety issues, and that has resulted in massively expensive 'pre-emptive' safety measures being built into your 'safe, reliable', reactor designs, pushing the LCOE of nuclear electricity to more than $150 per MWh, almost 5 times the cost of renewables going forward.

That cost is simply uncompetitive with the globally preferred method of generation. As we build the proposed renewable energy superpower, with more than 7 times our domestic generation needs, it is mind-numbingly obvious that the source of that prodigious amount of electricity must be very, very cheap. No country on Earth has stronger, cheaper or more reliable solar and wind resources. Add to that we have all of the minerals necessary for making solar panels, wind turbines and storage batteries, it would seem to be blindingly obvious that the door has well and truly closed on nuclear in Australia, at least.

Short answer: try raising the funds to build a nuclear reactor. The market has spoken, and for once it agrees with the ecological argument. We need to have started reducing emissions twenty years ago, proposing a fifteen year lead time to the construction of a ridiculously expensive nuclear power station is just not rational.

John Saint-Smith | 22 October 2021  

lets hope that our erstwhile prime minister admits that doing nothing about our planet is extremely DUMB because he certainly did not have the guts to admit that mistakes were made over the years and now we must act to save our beautiful planet
Pope Francis has set us out on a challenge and we must live up to this

Maryellen Flynn | 19 October 2021  
Show Responses

This is the same Prime Minister who reacted in parliament to Labor's attempt to remind him of his well publicized statements prior to the last election when he set out to lampoon Labor about batteries being as useless as big bananas, electric vehicles ruining the weekend, and destroying the tradie's ute.

John Saint-Smith | 22 October 2021  

Come on, Australia is not last in 170 countries in climate action. This undermines your good reputation and you become mouthpieces for fringe critics like Tim Flannery - who was the person you referred me to for the "last our of 170 countries" Washington Post article. You can do better than this, without having to employ hyperbole.

Daniel O'CONNELL | 19 October 2021  

Hi Greg,
The good lord created the world in such that all life might prosper and co-exist, all life is sacred. He created a sun that energises the world and the impact of the solar cycle is the greatest impact to climate theory. If you truly wish to pass comment on climate I might suggest you review the IPCC modelling. Models are just that, models and often they are biast and discrete. It is a sad day when the skeptic nature of man falls away, it's where we delevelop our discernment. I have a strong faith in the ability of man to bring about solutions that do not impinge on the democratic rights and freedoms of the individual. These times are now being underwritten by the tyrrany of meglomaniacs who would impose their philosophy that the world is doomed due to the population impost and climate catastrophe. The world can comfortably carry 13 billion people, yet we now need a great reset. I suggest you might want to consider the agenda because if they have their way, you wont have any rights. God Bless

Peter Sumner | 20 October 2021  

Good for Edward Fido. What a sensible comment.
It's time we embraced clean nuclear energy. We have plenty of space to bury the little amount of waste. It generates.
All the current so called clean energy devices eg. windmills, batteries, electric cars etc take an enormous amount of energy to produce. Look who is producing & selling them? How are they being produced? What happens to the 'junk' when they need replacing? Do we ever get answers to these questions? Conveniently 'no' is the answer.
So let's get on with solving our own problems with sensible solutions and not being bullied into going along with the crowd.

Penny | 20 October 2021  

Thanks for this concise, accurate summary, Greg. I endorse Maryellen's heeding of Pope Francis' call to protect our sacred Earth. And there may be some truth in Ray's suggestion that Germany and England 's current policies are motivated by the exhaustion of their own coal reserves, but it misses the point that they also reflect the scale of emissions reductions that the vast majority of leading scientists tell us are required this decade. Unlike Edward, I believe great things can be achieved when groups of people come together in frank and sincere conversation, and I pray that COP26 will be filled with a spirit of compassion and honesty and that real progress can be made there in ensuring the safety of future generations. Daniel rejects Australia's low ranking on climate action, but when I look at the measures used in the UN study it does not surprise me that a country with no climate or energy policy, high fossil fuel exports and subsidies, and a government beholden to its fossil fuel donors, would earn such a score.

Julia Croatto | 20 October 2021  

Hi Danielle, Australia's climate policies have rated worst in the world in many different studies. This reflects our low climate targets, no credible mechanism to meet them, our per person emissions (among highest in the world), our status as a developed nation and our continued government support for the fossil fuel industry. For a good independent summary in addition to the UN assessment see the Climate Action Tracker.

Ray makes a good point about UK and German economies. Australia's exports are still unsophisticated and carbon-intensive i.e. a lot of iron ore, gas and coal. This explains the intransigence to climate action here

Greg Foyster | 20 October 2021  
Show Responses

Greg, all the spin on the various energy forms ends up weighted by economics and desires to promote certain technology, usually by some obscure facts massaged into persuasions. CSG gas (sweet and sour) can be up to 40% sour of a mix of toxics but rarely does anyone question exactly what or how much those wells out west burn off or why. It might sound silly but ask someone in Roma how often they need to polish the silverware since the gas came to the region to provide the "sweet", clean gas for Brisbane buses. Now we have Twiggy spruiking an ammonia plant in Brisbane; ask someone from Lebanon for their thoughts on the wisdom of bulk ammonia (nitrate) storage adjacent to a city particularly if it gets loaded for export onto a ship full of diesel fuel oil. When a government won't let the sunlight in on one million dollars of donations to a minister how much can you trust the same people to present a balanced perspective to economic drivers worth many billions just for the infrastructure? The public deserve better than project justification on the basis of a few hundred jobs for construction and operation, we can handle truth and science better than we're credited.

ray | 21 October 2021  

Greg, I think you concisely sum up the dilemma we have created, and Australia cannot hide behind falsehoods any longer. As a large exporter of coal and gas, we have a responsibility to find solutions and not hide behind mirrors.
For too long this Government has pretended that we had no responsibility- such is the coward's way of avoiding taking action.
Australia has much to offer in renewable energy solutions and we should promote ourselves as such, rather than hide ourselves under a bushel.
Kevin Rudd started well and would have succeeded if his party had backed him. Now is the time to back ourselves in the big problem mankind has created for itself.

JOHN WILLIS | 20 October 2021  

Thanks Greg. This is a very important article about a crucial issue facing humanity. Sadly, in response to this environmental disaster that we face, we have the two parties in the ruling coalition of the Australian government acting most irresponsibly. One has to ask why does our position on emissions have to depend on the National Party? It is well known that this party does not support the responsible farmers who want their soil and water to remain free of pollutants so that they can produce uncontaminated food. The Nationals only appear to want to support the mining and fracking corporations. The responsible farmers have taken a stand and established Farmers for Climate Action and they should be supported by all Australians who want urgent and effective action on emissions that are causing over 13 million premature deaths per annum and accelerating climate change.
Under the LNP coalition in recent times, Australia has become an international pariah because of government inaction on this major problem Ironically, Scott Morrison has virtually been forced by leaders of the US and Britain to attend the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. It could be that Charlie Windsor - aka Prince Charles, the man who is predicted to be the next king of Britain - may have also played a part in getting Morrison to attend! What an irony! The LNP Coalition has always supported the continuing Australian connection to the British royalty and even a key member of that institution has admonished the LNP's irresponsibility. Will this help Australia to become an independent and non-aligned republic? Personally, I hope it does, but the main game is how effective humanity is going to be in eliminating emissions for the viability for future generations. And our leaders should be playing a far more responsible role in that process.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 20 October 2021  
Show Responses

Andy, I agree with your opinion/assessment of the National Party, which seems to be acting only of the mining companies, especially the gas companies, which are pushing for fracking. In the U.S.A. the fracking for gas has contaminated the land and water the most valuable assets we have.
This National Party of Australia is acting against the interests of farmers, who are being asked to re-elect these same politicians come the election due by May 2022. Why should they?

JOHN WILLIS | 22 October 2021  

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