Environment Minister Greg Hunt has suggested Australia is already beating its 2020 emissions reduction target, simply because the economy is weak.

Australia has set a 2020 target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 5% below 2000 levels, or reducing emissions from Australia to no more than 533 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

In a fact sheet for Australia’s 2020 and 2030 targets, the government has claimed that the “Direct Action” plan “is achieving results” through its emissions reductions fund paying for 144 projects in 2015 to help reduce emissions. But in reality Australia’s ability to meet the target today is driven by a slowing economy with lower electricity demand and a weaker manufacturing sector.

Ahead of the Paris climate change conference later this month, Hunt told The Australian it was likely that Australia would announce at the talks that we had already met our emissions reduction target.

“The huge expectation is that it will be below zero. We’ll be able to say that we’ve already met our target.”

The data Hunt is relying on is the quarterly update put out by the Environment Department on emissions. The last update from August put emissions at 545.1 million tonnes, and it is rumoured the next update will be in November. This data is likely to suggest that Australia has reduced its emissions since the August update to 533 million tonnes, due to a reduced use of electricity as the economy remains sluggish.

“It’s not policy decisions they’ve made but because the economy has turned down, which isn’t what they’ve predicted,” Australian Conservation Foundation economist Matt Rose told Crikey.

“Their current policy settings don’t do anything to address the structural issues in terms of emissions output, so it is all about lower economic growth and those other factors to get there.”

The combination of a weaker economy, plus the government only looking to meet the bare minimum of the 5-25% emissions reduction target it had set for 2020, means it was a walk in the park, Rose says. But instead of resetting a more ambitious target, the government will wait and conduct a review once every five years, plus a one-off 2017 review built into the Direct Action plan.

“He’s basically said ‘we’re going to sit on our hands for five years and wait to see what other countries do’.”

Hunt told The Australian Australia could set new targets in 2020, 2025, and 2030.

Another problem with the data the government has relied on to show emissions trending downwards, Rose says, is that electricity emissions are beginning to trend upwards for the first time since 2008-09. In the last emissions report, electricity emissions rose 0.7% year-on-year, coinciding with the repeal of the carbon tax.

“Some people suggest it is increased demand, and others suggest it is because of the use of higher-emissions fuel like brown coal and black coal now that it is not taxed. The true price of it isn’t being reflected anymore because it is the cheapest fuel, especially brown coal, so people are switching back to it,” he said.

Electricity accounts for close to one-third of Australia’s emissions. If Australia’s economy rebounds, emissions could rise again.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet between November 30 and December 11 in Paris. Hunt, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will all attend. Countries from around the world are negotiating to attempt to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees by the end of this century. Despite the terror attacks in Paris last week, the event is still expected to go ahead.

A similar sharp fall in emissions happened in Europe in 2009, amounting to a net reduction of 542 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2009, emissions were 17.4% below 1990 levels, according to the European Environment Agency. The agency suggested this was due to the major recession in the EU resulting in a reduction in consumption of coal, oil and natural gas fuels, with the biggest reductions coming from Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey