Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled the government could stop claiming Kyoto credits to “meet and beat” its carbon emissions reduction target, declaring in response to the bushfire disaster that climate change policy would be updated without destroying jobs and regional economies.
He said the government’s 26-28 per cent emissions cut goal had been “set” as its election policy, downplaying speculation he could adopt a more ambitious goal.
A likely royal commission into the eastern Australia bushfire crisis would consider expanding the constitution’s legal powers for the federal government to intervene in natural disasters without the authority of the states. The compulsory call-up of 3000 Army Reservists pushed the Commonwealth to the “very edge” of “extreme constitutional territory”, Mr Morrison said.
Responding to community angst following criticisms of the government’s handling of the bushfire emergency, he said a wide-ranging inquiry would include emissions reduction and building better resilience and adaption to climate events such as fire, drought, floods and cyclones.
He emphasised that reducing carbon emissions required a “balanced” and global response because even if Australia shut down all its power-generation assets, the equivalent amount of emissions would be produced by China in just nine days.
Asked about being the only country which had officially committed to claim Kyoto carry-over credits to meet its 26-28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030, Mr Morrison said “if we are in a position where we don’t need them and we are able to continue to reduce our emissions and use the technology”, Australian climate policy would evolve.
“In the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area to reduce emissions even further and we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices, and without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood,” he said on Sunday.
“I want to do that within a balanced policy which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interest and social interest.”
The government and climate analysts are increasingly confident Australia will not require international credits to achieve its target, due to rapid renewable energy take-up by business and households.
The credits, banked for “over-achievement” on its Kyoto 1 and Kyoto 2 targets, account for meeting about half of Australia’s emissions cut on 2005 levels.
Mr Morrison said new low-emissions technology had evolved since the 1997 Kyoto deal in Japan and credits would be used “if needed” in the future.
Government sources confirmed it was poised to reconsider whether to continue claiming the credits banked for exceeding its earlier Kyoto targets.
One option is to retain the carry-over credits as a safety net or insurance policy, rather than an absolute measure to hit the Paris 2030 targets.
Australia faced international criticism at the Madrid climate talks in December for using the so-called accounting mechanism, but Energy Minister Angus Taylor defended their use as legitimate.
Frontier Economics climate change head Matt Harris believes Australia would not need to use carry-over credits to reach its Paris commitments, due to new emissions-reduction technology and federal and state government policies driving more renewable energy.
The latest emissions projections from the Department of Environment and Energy show Australia has exceeded its emissions reduction task by about 43 million tonnes a year leading into the 2020 target – a figure the government is hoping will be replicated in the next decade.
By signing up to the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia has promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This equates to 395 million tonnes of carbon, according to the latest projections published last month – down from the cumulative 695 million tonnes predicted in 2018.
The so-called “Kyoto carry-over” would allow 411 million tonnes of excess emissions from the 2020 target to be rolled over towards – and exceed – the 395 million tonnes abatement task.
The government on Monday will commit $50 million to protect wildlife and work with scientists, ecologists, communities and land managers to plan longer-term protection and restoration effort after the fires.
Mr Morrison ruled out a carbon tax or revisiting the National Energy Guarantee, a market signal broadly supported by the energy sector to provide investment certainty and which former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull reignited calls for in an opinion column for The Guardian on the weekend.
Mr Morrison argued a tax or “reckless” commitments would push up electricity prices and destroy mining jobs in regional communities.
He said the fire disaster would have “quite a significant impact” on the economy in the current quarter.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said a royal commission or a similar inquiry into the fires must examine the impact of climate change.
“At the moment what they have is an accounting policy of having accounting tricks, rather than actually reducing emissions,” he said.
“We don’t have a domestic plan. And we don’t have a plan which would then give us credibility internationally to argue the sort of reforms that are needed.”
Mr Morrison said he would consult cabinet colleagues and the states on the terms of a royal commission or commission of inquiry into the fires.
The planned inquiry would examine the operational response by governments and authorities, the roles and powers of federal and state governments and an acknowledgement that climate change is contributing to extreme weather events.
He emphasised taking “practical” short-term steps to protect communities, by building resilience and adaptation to climate change linked extreme weather events, because the summer was becoming “longer, hotter and drier”.
He has previously flagged analysis of hazard reduction, fuel loads and controlled burns – usually the responsibility of state governments.
“Our emission reduction targets can be higher or lower but the fact is [in] the next 10 years and beyond we’re going to be living in a very different climate,” Mr Morrison said.
“And we need to prove our resilience in response to that on the ground through a range of measures which have both state and federal responsibilities.
“And the third is climate change adaption. These are the areas of climate change action that I think need greater attention because they’re the things that are practically affecting people’s daily lives here in Australia where we can do practical things that can make us more resilient and ensure that we’re safer.”