The greening of the Coalition

Once a British colony and a source of slaves for American plantations, The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest sovereign nations and the smallest country on mainland Africa. Insignificant is a word that comes to mind.

Except that it’s not. Small, poor and exploited it may be, but it doesn’t shirk responsibility. According to the UN it is the only country in the world that is doing what each country must do to hold planetary heating below the agreed limit of 1.5C.

Prime minister Scott Morrison and treasurer Josh Frydenberg beg to differ. Last week, each claimed that Australia was doing its bit for the world. Frydenberg was speaking to the Australian Industry Group; the PM’s audience was President Joe Biden.

They made three main claims: Australia is a world solar power leader with panels on one in four homes. Pumped hydro schemes, new interconnectors and green hydrogen will boost renewable energy. And Australia has cut its emissions by more than 20 per cent since 2005 – faster than the OECD average, faster than the US, Japan, Canada and New Zealand.

But the rise of Australian solar has almost nothing to do with the Coalition, which until recent subtle shifts in its narrative has been pushing a “gas-led recovery”. And any impact from pumped hydro and green hydrogen will be many years or even decades away. To avert climate catastrophe, says UN chief Antonio Guterres, we need effective action now. Next decade will be too late.

As for the claim that our emissions have dropped since 2005, if you take out land-use credits they’ve actually risen by about 7 per cent. November’s Glasgow climate summit will be well aware of this – the “net” in “net-zero” that allows countries to offset emissions by growing trees – and how recalcitrant leaders can use it to their advantage.

A study released last week by the Australia Council and the Australian Conservation Foundation backs that up. The “Questionable integrity” study concluded that public funds are being squandered on so-called “avoided deforestion” when landowners are paid to retain vegetation that was never going to be cleared.

In 2019 the ACF sought assurance from the Emissions Reduction Fund about the integrity of its methods for deciding who gets money for avoided deforestation. The ERF Assurance Committee, which regulates the scheme, completed a review but has since released no findings. In the meantime, $68 million has been disbursed for projects in question.

The Morrison government’s claim to have cut emissions by 20 per cent is based on this scheme. Considering the method’s widespread use globally, we should all be alarmed.

Australia’s Paris commitments are the weakest among wealthy nations. A new UN scientific report concludes that the best – repeat, the best – we can expect from combined current national commitments is global emissions 16 per cent higher in 2030 than back in 2010, which puts the world on a pathway to global heating of 2.7C.

By any measure that would be catastrophic. Bear in mind that just 1.1C of warming has produced today’s melting permafrost, diminishing icecaps and record-breaking wet, dry and hot weather events.

Warming of 1.5C will be worse than today, but the report says that even just to stay at that “safe” level we have to set targets much closer than 2050. By 2030, a little more than eight years from now, global emissions must be 45 per cent below what they were in 2010. 

Australia and other G20 nations together produce 80 per cent of global emissions. Guterres wants the G20 to lead others by committing to that 45 per cent by 2030 target. Getting aboard the 2050-net-zero bandwagon is far less important than what we will do this decade.

On Friday, probably not by coincidence, the Coalition released a pre-election ad that rolls all their dubious claims about what they’ve done and plan to do into a shiny, family friendly cartoon about a sunlit clean-energy future under a Morrison government.

Twelve years ago the Liberals ditched their leader for treating global warming too seriously. The Coalition went on to deride and destroy a functioning carbon price scheme which would have helped to fund new energy. For most of its time in office it has been trash-talking wind and solar and talking up coal and gas. 

After all that, it now wants electors to believe it has reduced emissions when it hasn’t, and that expensive, largely untested technology with a long lead time is better for the climate than cutting existing fossil fuel emissions, starting now.

What are we supposed to do? Applaud?

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