Australian emission cuts: fair or unfair?

Emission reduction targets of 15 per cent by 2020, 40 per cent by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2050 are rumoured likely to be recommended to government. It sounds like a lot, but is it really?

Late last week, reports circulated that the Climate Change Authority was going to recommend the government adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets of 15 per cent by 2020, 40 per cent by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2050, all below 2000 levels.

For those not acquainted with the mathematics of climate change, the targets are likely to appear extremely ambitious, even radical. In reality, they are unlikely to be enough to keep the increase in global average surface temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, which is the internationally agreed long-term objective.

If the 2 degree target is going to be achieved, the international community as a whole can emit roughly two trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (or 2,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2-e)) over the period 2001-2050 and virtually nothing after that*. Already, we have gone through approximately 500 GtCO2-e of this emissions budget (think of it as an ‘emissions pie’), leaving 1,500 GtCO2-e for the coming four decades (Figure 1).

Graph for Australian emission cuts: fair or unfair?

To put this in perspective, annual international greenhouse gas emissions are currently just below 50 billion tonnes (50 GtCO2-e). At this rate, we’ll eat through the remaining portion of the global emissions pie in 30 years. To make matters worse, emissions from developing countries are still growing strongly and are unlikely to stop increasing for some time yet. Unless developed countries commit to dramatic and immediate emission reductions and developing countries follow suit soon after, there is no way the 2 degree target will be achieved.

None of this is news. It is well known and largely uncontested. Where the debate becomes truly contentious is in how to divide up the remaining portion of the emissions pie.

This is the principle blockage in the international negotiations. If two decades of complex negotiations between the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change could be condensed into one sentence, it would read something like: developed countries want as much of the global emissions pie as they can get and so do developing countries, and neither side is willing to give sufficient ground to satisfy the other.

It is important to note here that emission targets do not place absolute limits on the gross emissions from a country. Countries can buy allocations from other countries if they are unable to meet their targets internally or it is cheaper to pay others to make cuts elsewhere. The reason for the impasse in the international negotiations is simply because all parties recognise that slices of the remaining emissions pie are a valuable asset. Countries are either trying to minimise the amount they have to buy from other parties or maximise the amount they can sell.

This brings us to the 15 per cent, 40 per cent and 90 per cent cuts that are apparently being mooted by the Climate Change Authority and whether these targets constitute a fair distribution of the emissions pie?

This is a value judgement for which there are no right or wrong answers. In the climate debate, advocates regularly claim that the ‘science says’ Australia must make such and such cuts by such and such date. But science can only tell us how big (or small) the emissions pie needs to be to meet the 2 degree target with a certain degree of certainty, not how to divide it up.

Within the climate negotiations and academic and professional literature, numerous models have been put forward for how to divide up the emissions pie. My personal preference is a simple per capita split because it is egalitarian, transparent and easy for all parties to understand.

If this is taken as the benchmark of fairness, the 15 per cent, 40 per cent and 90 per cent cuts look decidedly unfair. If other developed countries adopted equivalent targets, the ‘developed world’ as a whole would receive around 30 per cent of the 2001-2050 emissions pie, despite having only 15 per cent of the world’s population over that period. Put another way, the average per capita allocation received by a person from a developed country would be more than double that received by someone from a developing country (Figure 2). 

Graph for Australian emission cuts: fair or unfair?

Of course, others may see the 15 per cent, 40 per cent and 90 per cent targets as perfectly fair and reject an egalitarian method of allocating the emissions pie. This is fine but they must establish why the average resident of a developed country deserves twice the amount of the emissions pie as the average resident from a developing country — a task that is made more difficult by the disparity in income and wealth between developed and developing countries (Figure 3).

Graph for Australian emission cuts: fair or unfair?

From a purely practical perspective, developing countries are also unlikely to accept this division, if only because it would require them to reduce their emissions by around 1 GtCO2-e per year, every year from 2021 through to 2050 (i.e. almost twice Australia’s current total emissions). 

Developed countries could make up for perceived inequalities in the emissions allocations through direct transfers (e.g. increase the aid budget and the transfer of low-emission technology). However, the size of the required transfers and state of most developed economies places practical limits on the extent to which this approach can be relied on to solve the negotiation problems related to inequitable emissions allocations.

In the end, unless developed countries, including Australia, agree to deep and early cuts, the most likely outcome is that negotiations will continue to founder and/or the parties will expand the emissions pie to accommodate the competing claims for emissions allocations. If this occurs, the 2 degree target will become more of a 2 degree hope, with much of that hope resting on the shoulders of an as yet undiscovered (or at least unproven) technological solution. 

* This emissions budget provides a 50 per cent probability that temperatures will not exceed 2°C. To raise this to 75 per cent, the budget would have to be reduced to 1,500 GtCO2-e.   

Andrew Macintosh is an Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law and Associate Director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law & Policy.