It’s a common refrain from the Morrison government, repeated again on Tuesday: that Australia is not only acting on the climate crisis but doing more than other countries. That the consistent criticism it receives over global heating is unfair.
Scott Morrison and the emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, point to official government greenhouse accounts that suggest national emissions – in part due to Covid-19 lockdowns – are about 20% lower than they were in 2005.
They say this is a much better performance than other countries – Canada and New Zealand, for example.
It’s a line used in response to regular criticisms that Australia is a laggard in dealing with global heating, sitting alongside countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The scientific evidence, backed by many national leaders, says the world needs to make a collective cut in emissions roughly in half by 2030.
The Morrison government still has the same 2030 target set under Tony Abbott six years ago – cutting emissions by between 26% and 28% compared with 2005 levels. It says new official emissions projections will show it is on track to beat this target but the government won’t increase its ambition. The Liberals and Nationals have only just agreed on a deal to set a target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
World leaders are preparing to head to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow starting next week and emissions targets will be in the spotlight. So how do Australia’s performance to date and its commitments for the future compare with what others are doing?
The interactive graphs below, based on data provided by researchers at Climate Analytics, tell the story.
On future climate commitments, Australia is far less ambitious than comparable countries.
Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK, the US, the European Union and China have all already set net zero targets.
Among developed countries, all except New Zealand have significantly more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030. New Zealand has promised a new goal at or before Glasgow.
The UK (68%), US (50%) and EU (55%) are planning to cut carbon pollution at least twice as fast as Australia from when emissions were roughly at their peak in those places.
When it comes to current performance, the UK, US and EU have all recorded reductions in emissions over the past decade and a half.
Australia’s performance, on the other hand, is not as straight forward as the government claims.
It largely hinges on whether changes in land use and forestry are included in emissions accounts.
This matters because decisions by state governments have led to a reduction in the pace at which forests and woodlands are destroyed for reasons mostly unrelated to climate change. Significant areas of forest are still cleared for farming and development each year, and the pace of bulldozing is accelerating in some places, but there has been an overall reduction.
This is good – it helps the climate and is banked as a cut in national greenhouse gas accounts. But it is not evidence of a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, the main problem driving global heating.
A clearer picture of what is happening with fossil fuels is available when we exclude changes in land use from the data. If we do that, Australia’s emissions increased by 1.7% between 2005 and 2018 – from 524.5m tonnes to 553.3m tonnes.
There is another set of data that has become increasingly relevant in Australia – a breakdown of what is happening at a state and territory level.
Every state and territory has set a net zero target. Tasmania is already at net zero.
And every state that has a 2030 target has also been more ambitious than the commonwealth, with New South Wales recently doubling its planned reduction to 50%.
Several analyses in recent weeks have found if the states with 2030 targets meet those goals then that alone should lead to Australia reducing emissions by at least 34% by 2030 compared with 2005, and possibly more than 40%.
Despite this, the prime minister confirmed on Tuesday the national target would remain unchanged – not just before Glasgow but up until the federal election likely next year.