Speaking in the US, Scott Morrison said he would drastically reduce plastic pollution and strongly defended Australia’s position on climate change. Does what he said stack up?
CLAIM: Australia will ban exports of plastic, paper and glass waste starting in 2020 and is leading on practical research and development into recycling.
REALITY: Morrison has made dealing with plastic waste the defining environmental issue of his prime ministership, having flagged the export ban in August. Jeff Angel, the director of the Total Environment Centre, says the PM’s interest and apparent commitment to the issue is unprecedented for an Australian leader.
But experts say Australia is not yet a leader in recycling research and development (for evidence of leadership, try Finland). Most of Morrison’s commitments are aspirational ahead of a meeting of environment ministers in November. The government has promised $167m in recycling investment, but at last count just 12% of Australian plastic waste is recycled, according to government analysis.
CLAIM: Australia is taking real action on climate change. One piece of evidence: in 2012, it was estimated Australia would release 693m tonnes of emissions in 2020. As of 2018, this estimate had fallen to 540m tonnes.
REALITY: Projections of what Australia will emit have fallen, not actual emissions. Projections are estimates by government officials of how much carbon dioxide will be emitted at a certain date. Their estimate for 2020 has changed. That reduction has nothing to do with national policy.
Actual emissions have gone up in almost every sector of Australia’s economy, with the exception of electricity generation (down 15.7% over a decade in the national grid covering the eastern states, as Morrison pointed out). Total national emissions have been rising year-on-year since the Coalition repealed the carbon price scheme in 2014.
CLAIM: Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions.
REALITY: Australia does emit about 1.3% of global emissions if you don’t include fossil fuel exports. However, Australia has only 0.3% of the global population. Australia is one of the world’s top 20 polluting countries, emitting more than at least 170 others. It is the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels.
CLAIM: Australia will exceed its targets under the Kyoto Protocol and meet the commitment it made in Paris. It is making a “credible, fair, responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action”.
REALITY: Australia is on track to meet its Kyoto targets, but this is more about setting unchallenging goals and using tricks of accounting than genuine emissions reduction. Its first Kyoto target was an 8% increase in emissions between 1990 and 2010. Its second target is a 5% cut below 2000 levels by 2020. Neither target was consistent with what scientists said Australia should be doing to play its part in addressing the problem.
The same is true of the 2030 target, a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels. The government’s Climate Change Authority recommended a minimum 45% cut over that timeframe if Australia was to play its part in a deal to limit global warming to less than 2C.
Several analyses, including one from the government, have found Australia is not on track to meet even its existing Paris target.
CLAIM: Australia has reduced emissions by 367m tonnes of carbon dioxide more than required to meet our 2020 target under the Kyoto deal.
REALITY: This is true thanks to the government’s use of carryover credits from Australia beating its first Kyoto target (the 8% increase).
Simply put, Australia set itself a target that allowed it to increase emissions and accepted a credit towards the next period of the Kyoto Protocol for staying below that increase.
It now plans to use credits from the second Kyoto period towards meeting its Paris target. This is not allowed for in the Paris agreement and opposed by a number of countries, including New Zealand and European Union members.
CLAIM: Australia has the highest per capita investment in clean energy technologies of anywhere in the world. One in five Australian households has rooftop solar systems.
FACT: True on both counts, but there are signs Australia’s surging clean energy investment is falling off.
Researchers from the Australian National University recently reported the per capita growth in clean energy in recent times has been nearly three times faster than the next fastest country, Germany.
Dylan McConnell, from the University of Melbourne, says the boom in clean energy spending over the past two years has been largely driven by the 2020 renewable energy target. Most of the investment came in a rush at the end because the Coalition under Tony Abbott considered abolishing and ultimately reduced the target. Uncertainty over its future stalled investment for the better part of two years. Now the target has been met and the government does not plan to extend or replace it.
Tristan Edis, a clean energy consultant and analyst, says the government has spent much of its time in power working against clean energy, having tried to abolish support for it under Abbott and deposing Malcolm Turnbull as leader when he tried to introduce a modest policy, the national energy guarantee, to extend support beyond 2020.
CLAIM: Australia is “doing the right thing by our neighbours” on the climate crisis, having committed to investing a further $500m over five years from 2020 for “renewable energy, climate change and resilience in the Pacific”.
FACT: Australia did commit $500m to climate projects in the region at the recent Pacific Islands Forum, though whether it qualifies as “further” is contestable: the money was drawn from the existing aid budget.
Morrison’s claim that Australia is doing the right thing by the Pacific is not shared by several leaders at the forum in Tuvalu. Australia was repeatedly publicly rebuked over its stance on climate change during and after the talks, which almost collapsed due to Australia’s strong resistance to the final communique including references to phasing out coal, limiting global heating to 1.5C and announcing a strategy for zero emissions by 2050 from the final communique.
CLAIM: The Great Barrier Reef “remains one of the world’s most pristine areas of natural beauty” and Australia’s $2bn 2050 reef plan is based on the best available science.
REALITY: A recent five-year reef report by government scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found the outlook for the natural wonder had deteriorated from poor to very poor due to a range of threats, particularly record-breaking sea surface temperatures.
Mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 led to widespread and unprecedented coral loss in the north and central sections of the reef. Habitat loss and degradation is affecting fish, turtles and seabirds. The authority has warned that without urgent global and national action on the climate crisis – the single greatest threat facing the natural wonder – the reef’s plight will not improve. But it is true that the parts of the 2300km reef ecosystem that have escaped coral bleaching, cyclones and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish are in good condition.
The 2050 plan is based on thorough, decades-old science and sets out the challenges: the reefs face a “worrying outlook” if countries fail to limit global warming to 1.5-2C.
It names climate change as the biggest threat to the reef’s future, but includes no additional plans to address what causes it, or to lift Australia’s climate target to what scientists say is necessary.
CLAIM: The argument between the major parties over whether you need to take action on climate change is settled in Australian politics.
FACT: Where to begin? Even casual observers of Australian politics are aware of the historic, decade-long divisions over what should be done in response to climate change, both between and within the parties. They remain.
Countries including Britain, France, Germany and Chile, and the biggest state in the US, California, are promising net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. Labor also remains committed to this goal, though its pathway to get there is being reviewed after its election loss in May.
The Coalition has no national target beyond 2030. Morrison said in the US he has no plan to change this.
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