Three issues will determine whether Labor’s climate policy works – and what the government does next is key | Adam Morton

Three issues will determine whether the Albanian government’s major climate declaration this week can deliver the transformative change Australia needs.

The details can be overwhelming, but it’s a quick recap for those still enjoying their summer break: On Monday, the climate change minister, Chris BowenA review of Australia’s carbon credit system. It followed claims by experts that the plan was “largely sham” because it failed to deliver real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon credits are purchased by companies as an alternative to reducing their direct emissions and are counted as their own reductions. It is said that each credit equals one ton of carbon dioxide.

In Australia, credits are mostly created through three types of projects: regeneration of native forests, stop leaking emissions from landfill sites and “avoid deforestation”, which rewards landowners who agree not to clear the forest they may have.

The review committee, chaired by former chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb, did not accept claims that the credit system lacked integrity, finding that the methods used were up to standards and there was evidence that the system was reducing emissions. But the committee recommended a series of improvements similar to those supported by the plan’s most qualified critic, Professor Andrew MacIntosh – the longtime chair of the government’s emissions safety committee.

On Tuesday, Bowen released his plan to renew the safeguard mechanism, the alliance’s policy that promised to reduce emissions from major industrial sites that contribute nearly 30% of the national carbon pollution. In practice, it was pretty much pointless. Large emissions are often allowed to pollute more without penalty.

Bowen said Labor would make changes that the coalition had indicated, but had not been introduced. From July, there will be new production-based emissions limits for each of the top 215 polluting facilities — think coal mines, gas exporters, steel mills, aluminum smelters, fertilizer manufacturers and airlines — which will be reduced by 4.9% annually.

It is the most important climate policy that the government has promised this term. Its success will depend on whether it leads to real emissions reductions and encourages large industry to adopt cleaner technology. It will fail if there are too many loopholes cut out, or if politics explodes (again) in a way that sets the country back.

Bowen promised $600 million from a new fund to “energize the regions” to help some exporting industries adopt the new technology. He also said that companies can use carbon credits as much as they want to achieve their goals. In other words, companies can make up their own mind about what makes sense—investing in direct cuts or paying for offsets.

This means that the National Carbon Credit Scheme is about to play a central role in Australia’s climate response. Evidence suggests that putting too much weight on them is problematic. What happens from here will determine the extent of the problem.

Chubb’s revision recommendations for changes to the scheme received support from Bowen, industry and some of the scheme’s harsher critics. They include not approving new averted deforestation projects; ensuring that there is evidence that forest restoration projects are in fact causing forest cover; Tightening rules for the development of landfill gases.

The commission also called for the creation of a new independent commission to oversee integrity and, most importantly, for more data to be made publicly available — including audits of individual projects. If managed well, these changes could address many of the criticisms that have been made of approved projects in the future.

But there remains a major discrepancy between Chubb and the scheme’s critics regarding the millions of credits that will continue to be created over the next decade by projects already in operation. This remains unresolved in part because the review was not required to consider the integrity of individual projects, nor did it directly address harmful allegations from the Macintosh team – for example, claims that landowners took credits to plant forests in areas where there was already significant tree cover. , and in some cases where tree cover has decreased by massive amounts.

  • Credits are routinely issued for tree growth that would have happened anyway. The method is based on the assumption that livestock grazing significantly reduces tree growth and forest cover, but scientific evidence shows this is incorrect.
  • Credits are being issued for growing trees despite in many cases already containing mature trees when the projects started. The rules require areas with mature trees to be excluded.
  • Projects at landfill sites that receive carbon credits for capturing and burning methane to generate electricity are profitable already – they earn money selling the electricity and by receiving and selling renewable energy certificates – and therefore should not qualify. The integrity committee under Macintosh recommended in 2018 that these projects no longer receive credits. The government instead created a new method granting landfill projects a five-year extension.
  • Credits are being issued based on a flawed assumption that any landholder in western NSW with a land-clearing permit issued between 2005 and 2010 planned to use it within 15 years. This would have required the pace of land clearing to increase by at least 750%. It means credits are being issued to farmers for not clearing land that never would have been cleared in that timeframe.
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    Question and Answer

    What exactly do Macintosh and his colleagues claim?


    • Credits are routinely issued for tree growth that would have happened anyway. The method is based on the assumption that cattle grazing significantly reduces tree growth and forest cover, but scientific evidence shows that this is not true.
    • Tree planting credits are issued even though many of the trees already contained mature trees when the projects started. The rules require that areas with mature trees be excluded.
    • Projects in landfill sites that receive carbon credits to capture and burn methane to generate electricity are already profitable – they make money selling electricity and through receiving and selling renewable energy certificates – and therefore should not be eligible. The Macintosh Integrity Commission recommended in 2018 that these projects no longer receive credits. Instead, the government created a new method for granting landfill projects a five-year extension.
    • The credits are issued on the false assumption that any landowner in western NSW who had a land clearing permit issued between 2005 and 2010 plans to use it within 15 years. This would have required increasing the frequency of land clearing by at least 750%. This means that credits are issued to farmers for not clearing land that would not have been cleared in that time frame.

    Thank you for your feedback.

    Looking at the nation’s largest credit generator, GreenCollar, Macintosh agreed that the model used to estimate the amount of carbon stored in renewable forests. Not calibrated for areas that already have large amounts of vegetationIt seems logical that the government would support a transparent review of existing projects, if only to build public confidence.

    There is also a broader issue: the question of how much Australia should depend on carbon credits at all.

    The truth is that carbon credits cannot — and cannot — do all that is promised for them. Those working in the region speak of the “80/20” rule. It says that even for high integrity credits, the general rule of thumb is that only about 80% of claimed cuts are delivered.

    This is not to say that the projects that generate credits are not important. But that means it’s not the same as preventing a ton of carbon dioxide from being emitted at the source. It’s not like reciprocate.

    Climate scientist Bill Hare points to evidence that tons of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels has a “very long tail” in the atmosphere. About 40% of every ton released is still present after a century, and 20% remains after 10,000 years. Storing more carbon in trees and across landscapes is vital, but it can’t be guaranteed to last for long or measured with the same precision.

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    Scientists stress that we also need to consider the urgency of the climate crisis. The evidence is clear that emissions need to be cut quickly And We need to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if the world is to survive the possibility of limiting global warming to something close to a safe level. A report by United Nations experts late last year said companies should only use offsets in addition to absolute cuts consistent with the target of limiting average heating to 1.5C.

    This is harder for some industries than others, but it makes a strong argument that the use of credit within the protection mechanism should have limits.

    Other factors that will determine the government’s success are just as important, but they can be dealt with more quickly.

    One is the key question of how many new fossil fuel developments – in particular the massive gas export projects that have driven most of the increase in industrial emissions over the past decade – will still be built in Australia.

    Allowing any new fossil fuel developments runs counter to scientific warnings, and will increase pressure on existing polluters to make deeper and faster cuts if the government is to meet its emissions targets. The government has ruled out a ban on new fossil fuels for political reasons. What is not clear is how strong the protection mechanism design will be as a deterrent to fossil fuel companies.

    The government says baselines for emissions of new polluters entering the scheme will be set at “international best practices,” which implies a stricter cap than current operators.

    Another issue is how exporters will be dealt with. The government wants to make sure it doesn’t just cut domestic production while competitors abroad continue to pollute.

    Bowen announced subsidies to help pay for transformative technology and said some industries may be approved initially to cut emissions at a slower rate, but he cautioned that it would be difficult to qualify.

    Case-by-case details — and any deals brokered in the Senate where the government needs to win support for some scheme changes — will be key.

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