Australian government sets a net zero by 2050 emissions target

As predicted in the lead-up to this weekend’s international climate change conference, the Australian government has set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The government’s plan, titled “The Australian Way”, focusses on technological solutions to the climate crisis. It avoids carbon pricing schemes and mandates, highlighting existing incentives for technologies such as low-cost solar power and “clean” hydrogen instead.

Negative emissions projects, including soil carbon and carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) are given particular weight in the plan. While CCUS has been in practice in Australia for over a decade, it is yet to reach wide-scale commercial or technological success.

“The Australian government’s change of position on net zero by 2050 is very welcome,” says Professor Ariel Liebman, director of the Monash Energy Institute.

“We now need them to turn this into a detailed policy that includes a firm 2030 science-based target (essentially 50% below 2020 level), and a proper integrated national energy market reform strategy.”

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University, says that the prime minister’s statement “tells us absolutely nothing”.

“As the Liberal treasurer of NSW said on Insiders last Sunday, saying there is a plan without a meaningful target for 2030 shows the government is not taking climate change seriously,” says Lowe.

“We have no plan to accelerate investment in clean energy, no plan for reducing emissions from transport or manufacturing, no plan for agriculture.”

In a statement, Morrison argued against setting shorter-term targets for emissions reduction.

“The path to net zero is also not a straight line. In fact, as Bill Gates argues, forcing outcomes by 2030 with unrealistic targets can divert resources from technologies with longer lead times that will be essential to achieving 2050 objectives.”

While Gates has questioned the practicality of net zero emissions by 2030, Microsoft, which was co-founded by Gates, announced it would be carbon negative by 2030 in January 2020.

The company has also recently expanded the scope of its “internal carbon tax”, which has been in place since 2012 and is currently U$15 per tonne of CO2.

“Is this the end of the climate wars that have destroyed Australia’s political response and made us a global laughing stock for 20 years?” asks Peter Newman, John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University.

“Maybe it’s the top of the peak in anti-climate madness and from here we will go down into commonsense practical mitigation steps.”

Australia has the highest per capita carbon emissions of any industrialised nation, and is the 15th largest emitter in the world overall. As highlighted in the federal government’s plan, Australia is also one of the world’s top two exporters of both coal and methane gas.

“The Academy of Science welcomes the Government’s commitment to net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity by 2050,” says Professor John Shine, president of the Australian Academy of Science.

He adds that while advances in scientific research will be critical to decarbonisation, “time is running out if we want to limit the devastating effects of climate change”.

“As the report of the IPCC concluded in August, every tonne of CO2 emissions adds to global warming.

“Australia must strive to accelerate our transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years to play our part in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. This demands that Australia commits to accelerating emission reductions in the next decade as recommended by the IPCC.

“On the current 2030 trajectory, 1.5 degrees is unachievable.”

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