What is the Paris Agreement and what does it have to do with Australia’s climate targets?

What is the Paris Agreement and what does it have to do with Australia’s climate targets?
  • PublishedJune 11, 2024

“Dutton to pull out of Paris Agreement if elected”, one headline screamed.

“Dutton to ditch 2030 climate targets”, said another.

After more than a decade of internecine climate wars and policy chaos, Peter Dutton’s comments to the Weekend Australian set a cat amongst the pigeons.

He declared the Coalition would dump Australia’s 2030 climate target, adding there was: “No sense in ­signing up to targets you don’t have any prospect of achieving.”

With an election due by May next year, sensitivities are heightened and by Monday, the clean-up had begun.

Shadow energy minister — and nuclear power enthusiast — Ted O’Brien was dispatched to do the rounds of breakfast TV to reassure voters that the Coalition “is absolutely committed to the Paris Agreement” and “we’re also committed to net zero”.

No, we’re told, the Coalition is not withdrawing from the agreement (it’s actually quite a lengthy and complicated process as Donald Trump famously learned) but yes, it is opposed to the short-term target Australia’s committed to as part of that agreement.

Confused? You’re not alone.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty signed by nearly 200 countries with a collective aim: to keep global temperature increases, this century, to “no more than” 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Albanese holds up a framed piece of paper, sitting beside a smiling Chris Bowen, with a coterie of people behind him.
Anthony Albanese signed an increase to Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution to global emissions reduction in June, 2022.(ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)

To achieve this, each country must submit emissions reduction targets — or Nationally Determined Contributions — every five years which will “be a progression on the last … and reflect the highest possible ambition”. In other words, the targets are meant to get stronger. 

By 2050, the goal is to reach net zero emissions, or a carbon-neutral economy (this means accepting some emissions but finding ways to offset them).

But there’s a caveat: while countries are obliged to submit five yearly targets under the agreement, the targets themselves are not legally binding.

What happens if you miss a target?

The United Nations relies, to a certain extent, on transparency to keep countries in check, conducting a global stocktake every five years to measure progress.

And then there’s peer pressure.

John Connor from the Carbon Market Institute said while there were no penalties under the agreement, there would be “clear consequences” if countries, including Australia, failed to “meet or beat” their targets.

“You lose your leadership, you lose your capacity to negotiate, you lose your credibility,” he said.

“The Paris Agreement has been woven into security, trade and diplomatic agreements around the world.”

Or, as the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood puts it: “The prime minister doesn’t go to jail if the targets aren’t met but politically, it’s embarrassing.”

Man with grey hair and beard wearing white tshirt and blue cardigan looking down the barrel of the camera
John Connor says Australia would face consequences if it failed to meet, or beat, its climate targets.(ABC News: Adam Griffiths)

What is Australia’s 2030 target?

When the Coalition signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, it committed to cutting emissions by 26-28 per cent, on 2005 levels, by 2030.

Federal Labor didn’t think that was ambitious enough so when the Albanese government was elected in 2022, it quickly set about amending Australia’s target to a 43 per cent cut by 2030.

After all, climate was considered a key issue among voters at the 2022 poll.

The Coalition, now in opposition, has never supported the revised target but, as it puts the finishing touches on its own climate and energy policy, it’s begun ratcheting up its campaign against it.

A man looks stern as he speaks to the media.
Ted O’Brien reassured voters the Coalition was committed to reducing emissions.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Shadow Energy Minister O’Brien said: “Labor will not reach its 43 per cent target by 2030 and we’ve got to be honest about that.”

But he wouldn’t reveal what the Coalition would do with the target if elected, saying: “We will be as ambitious as we can, but we’ll be contained by what’s achievable.”

Given countries must have a target, the Coalition would have two choices: leave the existing target in place and let a future government worry about it, or formally weaken it and enter uncharted territory.

Mr Connor said such a move would be “globally historic” because “no country yet has weakened their 2030 target”.

“Weakening our target would send a very bad signal to the Pacific, and the region, and imperil future investment into Australia,” he warned.

What is Australia doing to reach it?

Australia’s already decarbonising its economy — a once-in-a-century transformation — and right now, the electricity sector is doing the heavy lifting.

Coal-fired power stations are closing and within six years, the government wants 82 per cent of the nation’s power to come from renewables, up from about 32 per cent now. This will be crucial to achieving Australia’s 2030 climate target.

It’s a complex task and not without its challenges: big projects like Snowy Hydro 2.0 have blown out in cost, developers are struggling to get projects approved quickly enough and many regional communities don’t want wind and solar farms changing their landscape and high-voltage transmission lines cutting through their farms.

Acknowledging the growing list of obstacles, the government has sought to supercharge a scheme to underwrite new renewable projects (the cost to taxpayers, though, has never been revealed).

Erwin Jackson from the Investor Group on Climate Change said progress was being made but after nearly 20 years of policy uncertainty, Australia was trying to achieve a lot in a short period of time.

“The electricity sector has always been the linchpin of achieving emission reductions,” he said.

“If we don’t decarbonise the electricity sector, then it becomes very, very difficult to decarbonise the rest of the economy.”

Wide angle picture looking up through long grasses to a high-voltage power line with the sun setting in the background
The electricity sector has been doing most of the heavy lifting.(ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

Is Australia on track?

It depends who you ask.

The government reckons it’s on track, when you consider all of the policies it’s put in place, including fuel efficiency standards and a beefed-up safeguard mechanism requiring big polluters to cut their emissions.

“We were on track for 42 per cent last December and since then we’ve had significant new policies announced that will further enhance the opportunity [to cut emissions],” said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“I’m very confident not only that we can get there but, importantly, that we must get there.”

The Climate Change Authority, which advises the federal government, has a different view.

Late last year, it found Australia was not on track to meet the target and noted emissions had actually risen over the year to June 2023, by 4 million tonnes.

“Right now, there are risks to meeting the 2030 target, but we can respond to them,” the authority said at the time.

“The 2030 target is still achievable.”

Tony Wood is more circumspect, saying, “it’s probably achievable but it’s looking pretty tough”.

If Australia misses its 2030 target, he says, it’ll just make the job of hitting net zero by 2050 more difficult.

EDF nuclear plant in Bugey, France
The Coalition is focusing its energy policy on nuclear.(Reuters: Benoit Tessier)

What’s the Coalition’s plan?

The political debate — once again — centres on energy policy.

While Labor’s mapped Australia’s renewable energy future, the Coalition wants to take a drastically different approach.

If elected, Peter Dutton’s promising to pursue nuclear power to decarbonise Australia’s electricity system, possibly building large-scale reactors on the site of decommissioned coal-fired power stations.

The estimated build time for a nuclear reactor in Australia is at least 15 years.

The details are yet to be released but if the Coalition is seeking to slow down the rollout of renewables, and rely more heavily on coal and gas until the first reactors are built, then its trajectory to net zero will almost certainly not be linear. 

an aerial photo of some solar panels
Many communities are not happy with solar farms being built among them.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

What’s next?

While politicians in Canberra are still debating 2030 targets, it’s almost time for the nearly 200 countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement to submit their 2035 targets.

With the clean energy transition underway, the focus will shift to cutting emissions in trickier sectors including agriculture, transport and heavy industry.

The Climate Change Authority is currently developing sector-specific targets for the next decade to put to the government. 

Its assessment is that an economy-wide 2035 target somewhere between 65 to 75 per cent “could be achievable”.

The authority’s Brad Archer said this target range “would be ambitious and could be achievable if additional action is taken by governments, business, investors and households”.

The most populous states are already moving ahead.

New South Wales has set a 2035 target of 70 per cent, Victoria’s committed to a 75-80 per cent reduction in emissions and Queensland recently legislated a 75 per cent target — with bipartisan support.

As he considers what figure to submit to the UN early next year, bipartisan support is something the prime minister could only dream of.


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