Australia’s Climate Dilemma: An Analysis of Canberra’s Environmental Policies

By Rohan Ahammed (PO ’24)

Australia made headlines at the beginning of 2020 after bushfires devastated large swathes of the country. With climate change shown to increase the risk of bushfires by at least 30%, it is no surprise that Australia often experiences the most extreme effects of global warming along its lush eastern coast. This has placed Canberra’s climate policy under greater scrutiny in recent years. Despite the growing evidence of climate change’s effects on Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s policies have been marked as inefficient by the Climate Action Tracker, failing to meet the 1.5˚C limit for warming set by the Paris Agreement, which Australia is a signatory. Australia wants to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement and reduce emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2030 by using carryover credits from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This is an inefficient and irresponsible way for Australia to approach its climate policy because it would result in an inadequate reduction of emissions that would fail to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement. If Australia wishes to play a role in mitigating the devastating effects of climate change, it must improve on these policies, its very future depends on it.

Because Australia reduced carbon emissions by levels more than the pledge set in the Kyoto Protocol, carryover credits were issued. Australia believes that these credits can be used to lower the emissions reductions necessary and avoid the ambitious action Australia needs to take by 2030. This would result in a 7% decrease in emissions by 2030, rather than the 26-28% previously committed. As such, under these policies, Australia would fail to meet its climate change commitments. This is concerning because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found emissions would need to fall 45% between 2010 and 2030 and reach net zero by about 2050 if global heating is to be limited to 1.5˚C. Because of the implications of Australia’s plan to use carryover credits, it should not be accepted by the wider international community, and Australia should move to renewable energies and away from carbon emissions.

Carryover credits are a carbon accounting measure that calculates the volume of emissions a country could have released but did not. Countries receive credits for reducing their emissions more than they were required to by the Kyoto Protocol. A country like Australia could then sell these credits to other countries that would allow them to emit more carbon if they had these credits. Australia wants to use these credits to fulfill its own obligations to the Paris Agreement. Instead of reducing their emissions by 26-28%, Australia wants to use the credits to fulfill the obligation. If Australia is successful, there would only be a 7% reduction in emissions by 2030 in Australia alone—this sets a precedent for other countries like China, Brazil, and Russia to meet their obligations with carryover credits as well. If carryover credits are used to meet the Paris Agreement by various countries, the legitimacy and the goals of the Paris Agreement loses value—emissions would not be further reduced, warming would not be limited to 1.5˚C, and the world could go on to suffer from the severe effects of climate change.

The legality of the use of carryover credits has been questioned by international law experts. The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are separate treaties—there is no reason why carryover credits established in one treaty should be used in another. Although both treaties try to address the issue of climate change and carbon emissions, they are independent of each other. Furthermore, signatories of the Paris Agreement have not reached a consensus on whether to accept carryover credits, and the Kyoto Protocol is not once mentioned in the Paris Agreement. It is unlikely that any amendments to the Paris Agreement regarding the acceptance of the use of carryover credits will be ratified by all signatories—a multitude of countries have already called for Australia to reduce emissions and meet its targets without the use of carryover credits. 

Jurisdictions with sufficient economic and political clout to influence others, like the European Union and the United States, should pressure Australia into meeting its target for the Paris Agreement without carryover credits. Australia’s current plans do not adequately address climate change nor does it decrease carbon emissions to the levels Australia agreed to in 2015. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s current strategy relies on the use of carryover credits as well as the use of more natural gas which produces less emissions than other fossil fuels but produces carbon emissions nonetheless. Like his predecessors in his centre-right Conservative Party, Morrison continues to prioritize economic development over reductions in carbon emissions. Morrison’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, repealed a carbon tax in Australia in 2014 that had successfully led to a decrease in emissions.

As the world’s largest coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter, Australia has a substantial impact on the world’s carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels. Morrison’s government has signaled a push into expanding Australia’s coal mining and LNG operations, mainly as a response to the economic downturn from the pandemic. As most countries look to use renewable sources of energy for their economy, Australia continues to expand on its use of fossil fuels. It should not be able to shirk on its responsibility to the Paris Agreement because of such an accounting fix; Australia may not be the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, but it still produces a significant amount. As such, any reductions in emissions and fossil fuels would have a sizable impact on the world. 

Now is not the time to try to meet the requirements of international agreements through technicalities and accounting. Even if Australia is able to use its carryover credits, Australia should commit itself to further decreasing emissions anyways. The world has to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to limit the amount of warming to amounts that would not entirely be catastrophic. 

Yet Australia’s economy depends on fossil fuels, namely coal and LNG (almost 6% of their GDP). But the economic impact of climate change is too significant to ignore: the bushfires earlier this year alone cost Australia over $100 billion. The Climate Council of Australia estimates the effects of climate change on agriculture and labor productivity alone costing $4.2 trillion over the next 80 years. With Australia investing in fossil fuels at a time in which most countries are looking towards green recoveries and renewable energies, the plan is not sustainable. Climate activist Bill McKibben notes that Australia’s investment in LNG as a way to utilize a cleaner fuel is “proudly announcing that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.” Australia is delaying the inevitable in making the transition to renewable energies and a green economy because of the need for the world to have net zero emissions by 2050. The sooner Australia starts to transition to renewable energies, the better its environmental and economic outcomes will look in the future. Asking Australia to restructure a large part of their economy is a huge ask, but Australia has a moral obligation to reduce their emissions to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement.

Even large mining giants in Australia, such as BHP and Rio Tinto, do not support Australia’s use of carryover credits. These companies recognize the consequences of global heating above 1.5˚C and want Australia to implement effective policies to combat this. While these corporations traditionally advocate against the implementation of policies that reduce carbon emissions, even now they have recognized the need to reduce carbon emissions in the following decades. 

To ensure that the integrity of the Paris Agreement is maintained and lowers global carbon emissions, Australia should abandon its plan to fulfill its emissions reductions through carryover credits. The need to reduce emissions to the levels dictated by the agreement is absolutely necessary to avoid greater climate catastrophes. As the devastating bushfires of this demonstrated, Australia has experienced first-hand the devastating effects of climate change. This should enact a new found urgency for better climate policies and ambitious actions to decrease emissions. Hence, a departure from the reliance on an accounting fix to meet international climate obligations should be mooted.

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