Australia’s record on climate change compared to other G20 countries has come under scrutiny in a new report.
The 2020 Climate Transparency Report, an annual collaboration between 14 think tanks and non-governmental organisations, is aimed at encouraging ambitious climate action.
The report has highlighted Australia’s poor performance as having one of the highest rates of subsidies for fossil fuels, for being one of only two countries not implementing a carbon pricing scheme and being one of the worst performers when it comes to emissions reduction in transport, energy efficient buildings and deforestation.
This year the report also analysed the countries’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic and warned that trillions more dollars were going towards to the fossil fuel industry as part of relief packages.
“Evidence suggests that COVID-19 recovery responses, thus far, have been disproportionately directed towards emissions-intensive and environmentally-damaging sectors,” the report notes. “This could contribute to emissions rebounding at a faster rate.”
It noted that Australia’s government had announced it would pursue a “gas-led” recovery and had provided unconditional support to coal, oil, and gas sectors as well as $US437 million in loans and tax deferrals to the airline industry.
While carbon emissions have fallen due to the pandemic and are expected to be 7.5 per cent lower across the G20 by the end of this year, this is expected to be temporary.
The report found the 20 member states of the G20 were still not on track for a 1.5C world and commitments made up to 2015 would lead to a 2.7C increase in global temperatures or higher.
Australia also ranked fourth among G20 member states for economic losses due to extreme weather events.
Between 1999 and 2018, Australia recorded an annual average loss of $US 2.4 billion due to these events. As a unit of GDP, this equates to an average annual loss of 0.25 per cent, only the US, India and China had higher costs.
The report, which analyses performance across 100 indicators of climate adaptation, mitigation and finance, noted that Australia’s per capita greenhouse emissions had decreased. However, there were areas where the country is falling behind other G20 members.
FOSSIL FUEL SUBSIDIES
In 2019, Australia had one of the highest rates of fossil fuel subsidies per unit of GDP and this was well above the G20 average, along with countries like Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Italy, France, and Russia.
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It put $US7.2 billion towards subsidising coal, gas and electricity, although petroleum was the biggest beneficiary. However, some funding was also provided for clean energy, for example for hydrogen and battery storage.
In total, G20 countries, excluding Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UK, provided $US130 billion in subsidies to coal, oil, and gas in 2019, an increase from $US117 billion in 2018.
LACK OF CARBON PRICING SCHEME
Australia and India are the only two member states of the G20 that are not implementing, or in the process of implementing carbon pricing schemes, such as carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes.
The two countries are not even considering the implementation of such schemes.
This is in contrast to the UK, which saw its coal use plummet when it introduced a carbon tax in 2013.
USE OF FOSSIL FUELS
Australia saw the biggest jump in the use of fossil fuels for energy of any G20 member state between 2018 and 2019.
The proportion of coal, oil and natural gas used for energy grew by 6.7 per cent, much higher than in China, which only had an increase of 2.6 per cent.
In contrast, most other countries actually reduced their reliance on fossil fuels.
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Australia’s carbon emissions per unit of power is also one of highest in the G20 — partly due to the country’s high reliance on coal and a smaller proportion of renewables — although emissions have decreased.
It still generates 82 per cent of its electricity from fossil fuels, mainly from coal (57 per cent). The use of natural gas has increased to 23 per cent of generation over recent years.
While renewable electricity is also increasing and makes up 18 per cent of the power mix, this is still less than the G20 average of 25 per cent.
The report gave Australia a “low” rating for its policy initiatives in this area, noting it had no policy to increase the share of renewables and no target or policy in place for reducing coal.
Instead the Federal Government is encouraging utilities to extend the lives of coal-fired power plants, promoting investment in new coal plants and providing subsidies for coal production and consumption.
The 2020/21 Budget will fund upgrades to an ageing coal-fired power station.
“To accelerate the global phase-out of coal power, G20 countries also need to end public financial support for coal domestically and abroad,” the report said.
“Public resources can instead be directed towards sustainable alternatives and supporting a just transition for affected workers and communities.”
Australia is the biggest coal exporter in the world, accounting for 29 per cent of the world’s coal exports – it uses only 16 per cent of its coal production domestically.
Australia performs the worst in the G20 when it comes to policies to decarbonise the transport sector.
It has no target to phase out fossil fuel cars, no plans to phase out emissions from freight transport, no efficiency or emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and no longer-term strategy for promoting the greater use of public transport or changes to freight transport.
No decisions have been made on imposing fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles, and the national electric vehicle strategy announced in 2019 has not yet been released.
This compares with other countries like the UK, which plans to sell its last fossil fuel car by 2030 and Canada, which wants 100 per cent of its new cars to be electric vehicles by 2040.
Other countries with ambitious targets include Japan and France.
Carbon emissions in the transport sector among G20 countries grew by 1.5 per cent in 2019.
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BUILDINGS ARE NOT ENERGY EFFICIENT
Australia was singled out, along with the US and Saudi Arabia for having the highest per capital building emissions in the G20. All three countries also lack strong policies to substantially reduce emissions in the sector.
In addition, Australia and Saudi Arabia do not have any policies for retrofitting existing buildings, although they do have some policies for new buildings.
LOSS OF TREE COVER
Australia is the only developed country that is considered a deforestation hotspot and 3-6 million hectares of forest could be lost in eastern Australia alone by 2030.
The country lost 6.11 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2019 (not including any gains in cover), which equates to 14 per cent less tree cover than in 2000.
The report notes that the government has no policies or incentives in place to reduce deforestation, which are high compared to global standards particularly in the state of Queensland.
The primary driver of deforestation is pasture creation for livestock, which accounts for 88 per cent of forest clearing.
The government is also assuming that emissions generated by the huge fires in Australia up to 11 February this year will be absorbed by forest regrowth.
“Australia needs to protect existing forests and take necessary adaptation measures to guard against the devastating wildfires witnessed in recent years,” the report states.
However, among the G20 member states, Russia, Brazil, Canada, the US, and Indonesia have the highest relative tree-cover loss between 2001 and 2019.
While no countries have targets for reaching zero deforestation by the 2020s, which is compatible with 1.5C of warming; China, the EU and Mexico do have targets for net-zero deforestation.
Australia, along with France and Canada, have no policies in place.
NO NEW TARGETS
Many countries have said they intend to reach net zero emissions by 2050 including France, UK, the EU, Germany, Canada, South Africa, South Korea and Japan. China says it aims to be carbon-neutral before 2060.
Other cities going it alone include Buenos Aires, Cape Town, London, Mexico City, New York City, and Tokyo.
Australia has not adopted this target but every state and territory has, essentially making it the country’s target to achieve net zero emissions by 2020.
But these intentions have not been included yet each countries’ targets for the Paris Agreement.
Signatories to the agreement are expected to produce a new emissions target every five years, which is more ambitious than the previous target.
Countries were due to submit new targets this year but so far only Japan has done this — and it has not increased its target. Other countries have indicated they will do so in 2021 ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November.
Australia, along with Russia and Indonesia have already said they will not update their targets.
Australia’s current target aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, which the report has labelled “insufficient”.
However, Australia’s target was considered better than other countries including the US, which were considered “critically insufficient”.
So far, only India’s target is compatible with 2C warming.
“We urgently need more ambition and leadership from the world’s biggest economies – and emitters – at the upcoming G20 Summit and next year’s UN Climate Conference” Humbolt-Viadrina Governance Platform’s Catrina Godinho said.
“The US election result offers some hope for international climate politics, but all G20 countries will need to do their part.”
THE GOOD NEWS
Significantly, emissions from G20 countries did decrease by 0.1 per cent in 2019, a significant turnaround from the 1.9 per cent increase in 2018 and the annual average growth rate of 1.4 per cent between 2005 and 2017.
This was partly achieved by a 2 per cent decrease in coal consumption, 2.4 per cent decrease in carbon emissions from the power sector, an increase in the use of renewables from 25 per cent of power generation to 27 per cent, and small decreases to emissions in the agriculture sector.
However, despite the decrease in coal consumption, fossil fuels still made up 81.5 per cent of the G20’s primary energy in 2020 because increases in gas (up 3 per cent) and oil (up 1 per cent) offset this.
The report noted the benefits of climate action included improvements to health and wellbeing, jobs and economic value creation, biodiversity and environmental resilience, financial security and fiscal benefits, and enhanced energy access and security.
“Increased climate action could trigger $US26 trillion in investments and generate 65 million low-carbon jobs worldwide by 2030,” the report noted.