Abbott shirtfronted by China-US climate deal

The US and China have announced an agreement to contain their global emissions which has left Tony Abbott naked - just in time for the G20 meeting that was supposed not to talk about climate change.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Tony Abbott and his Coalition government.

About to host the G20 meeting of world leaders in Brisbane, there was already controversy over his move to keep climate change off the agenda, against the objections of other world leaders.

Then on Tuesday Labor announced negotiations over changes to the Renewable Energy Target were fruitless because the government refused to budge from a position of wanting the level of the target slashed by more than 40%. Clive Palmer quickly backed the decision telling Fairfax Media: "Good on 'em. We're not doing a deal either."

And then midway through yesterday the leaders of the US and China, representing around 35% of the globe’s emissions, jointly announced an agreement on containing their carbon emissions, and urging other countries to get on board. The normally rather staid professor of economics and former ambassador to China, Ross Garnaut observed that this announcement had left the Australian Government “up shit creek”.

President Obama pledged that his country would aim to reduce its emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 emission levels by 2025 (or 14-16% below 1990 levels). The US government statement said this would be double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

Analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, published in Climate Spectator today, suggests such a target would be consistent with US actions needed to achieve a least-cost target for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The chart below illustrates the 2025 pledge (purple square) relative to US historical emissions (black line) and projected future emissions without further policy initiatives (purple/mauve coloured line).

Source: Climate Action Tracker (2014) Policy Brief: China and US increase climate ambition: Improvements needed in 2015

In addition China has now been persuaded to make a commitment to halt its own emissions growth, saying it will ensure its absolute emissions will peak by 2030, if not sooner. Such a commitment may sound weak by comparison with the US reducing emissions by 14% to 16% on 1990 levels by 2025 and the EU’s recent commitment to reduce its emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels by 2030. However, one has to also appreciate the Chinese have only just emerged from poverty.  Their total electricity consumption per capita is 3.3 megawatt-hours, while Australia’s is 10.7 MWh and the United States is 13.2 MWh according to World Bank statistics. In Australia there are 703 vehicles for every 1000 people, in the US it is 786, meanwhile for China it’s just 69 vehicles .

The target is also clearly extremely vague, avoiding providing a number on the amount of emissions at which the peak would occur. The general consensus among climate change analysts is that China should certainly be expected to grow its emissions given its lower levels of economic development, but the peaking of emissions needs to be several years sooner for the globe to be on track to containing global warming to 2 degrees.  

At the same time some China watchers suggest they are likely to outdo such a target. Former Ambassador to China, Ross Garnaut observed "I would expect China to do better than that [2030 capping of emissions]. China has been moving so quickly in the past two or three years that for them it's not acceleration". The Chinese also announced a target that by 2030 20% of its total energy would come from non-fossil fuels (renewable and nuclear energy) which they are already well on track to achieving. Current IEA projections have China achieving between 16% and 17% from non-fossil sources. The target for 2020 is 15%, and as Chinese climate policy academic Tao Wang observed, “given the huge growth in renewables it [the low carbon energy target] should be higher.”

Greenpeace’s East Asia senior climate and energy campaigner, Li Shuo noted that the Chinese 2030 peaking target should be seen as only the floor and not the ceiling of what can be achieved. Clearly China has left something up its sleeve to offer later.

So what’s this all mean relative to Australia’s own efforts in more concrete terms than Garnaut’s “up shit creek”?

Well, our targets now look woefully underdone relative to the other main developed economy peers.

According to the Climate Institute, if Australia were to make equivalent reductions as the US is doing, then our target would need to make an extraordinary jump from the current 5% reduction (from 2000 levels) in 2020 to a 30% reduction by 2025.

Also, don’t be misled by Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s deceptive statements on ABC’s Q&A program, where he compares Australia’s 20% Renewable Energy Target with other countries' targets such as Europe and China. Both Europe and China’s targets are for all energy consumption, while Australia’s is just electricity. In 2012-13 electricity represented only 28% of Australia’s total energy consumption. If we were to achieve a similar percentage of non-fossil energy as China’s target, but do it just via our electricity-based Renewable Energy Target then we’d need to increase it to a 72% of power!

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