Sleight of hand: Australia’s Net Zero target is being lost in accounting tricks, offsets and more gas

Sleight of hand: Australia’s Net Zero target is being lost in accounting tricks, offsets and more gas

In announcing Australia’s support for fossil gas all the way to 2050 and beyond, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pushed his government’s commitment to net zero even further out of reach.

When we published our analysis in December on Climate Action Tracker, a global assessment of government climate action, we warned Australia was unlikely to achieve its net zero target, and rated its efforts as “poor.”

That’s because Australia’s long-term emissions reduction plan—released under the Morrison Coalition government and not yet revised by the Albanese Labor government—resorts to unrealistic technological fixes and emissions offsets.

But it’s also because Labor’s legislated target of a 43% emission cut by 2030 is not aligned with a 1.5°C pathway to net zero by 2050. Studies now show we need around a 70% reduction in net emissions—including the land use, land-use change and forestry sector—by 2030 to put Australia on track to net zero by 2050.

Since our assessment, several huge gas projects have moved forward, including the carbon-intensive Barossa Pipeline and the development of the Beetaloo Basin fracking project to supply gas for domestic use in the Northern Territory and for export.

These projects will add between 3.5% and 15% to Australia’s emissions, depending upon the scale of development. Our LNG export industry is by far the largest user of gas, accounting for 84% of all gas production.

Despite what Madeleine King, the federal minister for resources, might say, fossil gas is not a “transition fuel.”

Because we have very few real emissions policies, our emissions in many sectors are actually rising. The best way to understand this trend is to remove the energy and land use sectors, so we can clearly see how much other areas are rising.

When you do, the data shows Australia’s emissions jumped by 3% from 2022 to 2023 and are now 11% above 2005 levels, with the largest growth from transport.

Yet just as the Coalition did, our current government says emissions are dropping. How can this be?

If we include land and energy, emissions have now fallen 25% below 2005 levels as of 2023.

But if you exclude land use change, it’s only a 1% decline in emissions.

Our own calculations show that successive governments have kept increasing their projections for how much carbon they believe the land use sector is storing. That’s happened every year since 2018.

If you keep changing how big a carbon sink land use is, you seem to make the task of cutting emissions a lot easier. The topline figure of a 25% fall in emissions sounds great. But in reality, there’s been very little change, if we avoid land use.

The Albanese government has now repeatedly changed how it calculates how much carbon the land sector is storing, as well as future projections. Between the end of 2021 and 2023, the government’s figures changed markedly. Land use as a way to capture carbon soared, from 16 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year to a whopping 88 megatonnes a year as of 2022. This is a staggering 17% of Australia’s 2022 fossil fuel and industry emissions. By changing these projections, our national emissions over 2022-23 magically appear to have fallen 6% in a year.

Every time the government recalculates how much carbon the land use sector is storing, the less work it has to do on actually cutting emissions from fossil fuels and industry sectors. That means it only needs emissions from fossil fuel use, industry, agriculture and waste to fall 24% by 2030, rather than 32%.

The only pathway we have left to limit warming to 1.5°C is political. Leaders must take up their responsibility to actually act and develop measures to rapidly cut carbon emissions.

Cutting emissions means not emitting them. Relying on offsets or changing how much we think the land is absorbing is not enough.

Sadly, our current government seems set on a sleight of hand. Rather than cutting fossil fuel and industry emissions 50% or more by 2030, as it should, the Australian government’s changes to land use accounting mean it has to do much less.

This is not a credible pathway towards net zero.