Caps Review Part 3: Australia’s role

This is the third part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis, and Part 2 explained the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it. This part outlines the role Australia should play in climate action.

Australia should take an activist, not avoidant approach to climate change mitigation.

Ross Garnaut’s paradigm on Australia’s role in mitigating climate change, on which the Government has based its approach, is deeply flawed. A more realistic approach has been outlined in the Laggard to Leader report by Beyond Zero Emissions.[i] Australia should not limit itself to implementing its inadequate existing targets. In the absence of global climate action on the necessary scale, there is a need for ambitious unilateral leadership. Unilateral action is required to get a momentum for global action. All willing countries should aim to use every lever at their disposal to cut emissions within their sphere of influence to zero or near-zero in as short a timeframe as possible, much sooner than 2050. Australia can play an important role in this regard.

Ambitious action by Australia should not be conditional on international action. The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”[ii] means Australia, as a developed country and high per-capita emitter, has the obligation and capacity to lead. Developing countries expect Australia to take unconditional ambitious action, and Australia’s lagging on climate change has damaged its international reputation.[iii] Also, conditional targets tend to be forgotten, particularly when the conditions are as unreasonable as they are at present.

Contrary to what some argue, Australia is not already leading the world with its $23/tonne carbon price. One reason for the low carbon price in the EU ETS is that many European countries have other climate policies (carbon floor prices, feed-in tariffs to support renewables, energy efficiency policies, transport policies, etc) which are taking the load off the ETS. Another reason is the EU ETS is badly designed (eg. its 2020 target requires no emissions cuts from present levels[iv]), which is no reason for Australia to follow their example. Regardless, no country on Earth is presently doing enough.

The position taken by the Australian government in UNFCCC negotiations has been largely counterproductive, including: its membership of the Umbrella Group of delayer countries; its prioritization of a post-2020 agreement over raising ambition as is urgently required; its insistence on a meaninglessly weak Kyoto Protocol second commitment period target for Australia; its unreasonable conditions for Australia to increase its Kyoto target; its refusal to countenance even conditional targets deeper than 25% below 2000; its pursuit of creative accounting rules for LULUCF (land use, land use change, and forestry) in both Kyoto commitment periods[v]; its intended reliance on international offset mechanisms; and its failure to provide finance for developing countries.

Instead, Australia should play a leading role in the UNFCCC. It should adopt an unconditional ambitious Kyoto target and stop advocating loopholes. Australia should acknowledge the “Australia clause” was an error committed by a previous government, propose an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol to correct it, and stop using it in its national emissions accounting. Australia should lobby other countries to raise their ambition. Australia should consider the promised post-2020 agreement as a distant last priority unless the implementation date is brought forward, because it is extremely misguided to focus on the mirage of a possible future agreement to be implemented after the critical decade is over. Australia is also obligated to provide funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions are the 15th largest in the world and the highest per capita in the OECD. Its cumulative historical emissions are the 14th highest in the world.[vi] Domestic emissions excluding LULUCF have risen 30% since 1990[vii], further increasing Australia’s obligation. Domestic emissions not covered by the carbon price also need to be addressed, and further increase Australia’s obligation to slash covered emissions.

Domestic emissions are only one part of Australia’s contribution to climate change, which also includes emissions from the burning of fossil fuel exports (which dwarf domestic emissions) and emissions from the manufacture of imported products. In a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, Australia shares responsibility for the emissions resulting from its exports and imports.[viii] These other contributions, as well as needing to be addressed themselves, further increase Australia’s obligation to slash domestic emissions.

Present climate policies around the world, including Australia’s, focus on constraining emissions only within their borders. Yet many of the world’s largest proposed fossil fuel projects involve carbon being mined in one country and burned in another.[ix] To target the problem at its source, much more attention must be given to constraining extraction of and global trade in fossil fuels.

Already the majority of Australia’s fossil fuels are exported. Any domestic emissions cuts will be far outweighed by planned exponential growth of fossil fuel exports.

The Australian government’s Energy White Paper[x] plans to facilitate the expansion of fossil fuel mining and export industries at a time when they must be phased out as fast as possible. Not only does the government want Australia’s enormous known fossil fuel reserves to be burned, it even promotes exploration for new ones. It boasts Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and intends it will soon be the largest exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). It projects Australia’s coal exports will double and its LNG exports quintuple by 2035 (and the total capacity of proposed coal export ports suggests the reality could be even worse).

Proposed Australian coal export projects collectively have been identified as the second largest proposed expansion of fossil fuel CO2 emissions after Chinese coal mining.[xi] Demand for these exports depends on a scenario where the world takes no further climate action beyond what has been pledged in UN climate talks, leading to >4°C global warming, despite Australia claiming to support the globally agreed objective of limiting warming to <2°C.[xii]

All the above mean Australia’s present climate policies are completely inadequate.

In Part 4, I will debunk the economic justifications for inaction.

This series was first posted on
Precarious Climate

[i] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,

[ii] United Nations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, viewed 9 September 2012,, p. 1.

[iii] C Hamilton, Running From the Storm: The development of climate change policy in Australia, 2001, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 89-92.

[iv] F Harvey, ‘Doha climate talks: EU weakened over new emissions targets’, Guardian, 23 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[v] C Milne, ‘Australia must not rort Kyoto protocol rules’, Australian Greens, 8 December 2011, viewed 22 February 2013,

[vi] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 17-19.

[vii] Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Trend, 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[viii] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 16-21.

[ix] Greenpeace, Point of No Return: The massive climate threats we must avoid, 2013, viewed 23 January 2013,

[x] Australian Government Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, Energy White Paper 2012: Australia’s energy transformation, 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xi] Greenpeace, Point of No Return: The massive climate threats we must avoid, 2013, viewed 23 January 2013,

[xii] T Edis, ‘Australia’s schizophrenic energy policy’, Climate Spectator, 12 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,