Climate advocates were overjoyed when voters in Australia threw the despicable Scott Morrison and his gang of fossil fuel sycophants overboard last year. ScoMo refused to take any action that might actually address the looming climate crisis and favored his dirty energy supporters at every turn. Albanese promised to sweep aside all the blather from Morrison and company and to actually tackle Australia’s carbon emissions in an intelligent and responsible way.
All those high hopes and great expectations have now been muted, after the Albanese government rolled out its new “safeguard mechanism,” a program that incorporates much of the failed policies of former Australia prime minister Tony Abbott, who preceded Morrison. The heart of the program is a system of carbon offsets that may actually allow fossil fuel companies to increase their carbon emissions without penalty. How’s that for bold action?
According to The Guardian, there is currently a standoff between Chris Bowen, the current Australia minister for climate change, and Adam Brand, the leader of the Greens party. The Greens want the government to block new coal and gas developments. Albanese and Labor promised not to do that during the last election campaign. There is widespread uncertainty about what the safeguard mechanism is and that confusion is aggravated by debate over the role that carbon offsets should play.
What Is The Safeguard Mechanism?
The safeguard mechanism was designed by the Coalition under Tony Abbott to put a limit on emissions from the country’s biggest industrial sites. It covers 215 sites that each emit more than 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Together they produce 28% of Australia’s emissions. Half are fossil fuel operations — gas extraction sites, liquified natural gas processing plants, and coalmines. Unless carbon capture and storage miraculously becomes viable, The Guardian says, those operations will need to make reductions now and be phased out eventually if Australia is to address global heating in any meaningful way. The rest of the facilities include steelworks, aluminum smelters, cement producers, chemical manufacturers, major transport companies, and airlines.
Each big polluting facility was given an emissions limit — known as a baseline — that was determined by historic output. But with few exceptions the baselines were not enforced, The Guardian reports, and polluters were allowed to increase their limits. A bunch of new polluters opened — including several big emitting LNG plants — adding to national pollution. As a result, industrial emissions increased significantly.
Bowen has released a proposal under which polluters will be given new baselines at levels that better reflect emissions. In most cases companies will be required to cut emissions intensity by 4.9% a year. They can choose how much happens onsite and how much comes from buying offsets. Those offsets — known as Australian carbon credit units — allow companies to pay for cheaper emission reductions elsewhere. But the government’s proposal to allow fossil fuel developers to buy an unlimited number of offsets while continuing to emit is highly unpopular with the Greens.
Labor has promised to create a new “safeguard crediting” system that would basically turn the scheme into a form of emissions trading. Polluters that make extra cuts would earn a credit for every ton of carbon dioxide below the established baseline. Safeguard credits could be sold to polluters who have not made enough cuts and need to account for their extra emissions. The idea is this would give industry an extra incentive to cut emissions onsite and greater flexibility to meet their targets.
From a scientific basis, the Greens are on solid ground. The International Energy Agency, the UN, and climate scientists have warned the world must stop opening new gas and oilfields and coal plants and make deeper emissions cuts this decade if it is to stay within safe limits of global heating and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Labor’s position is based on electoral politics and the argument that fossil fuel exports can continue while there are buyers.
Readers will recognize such language, as it is repeated over and over all around the world by fossil fuel companies who say they really would like to lower emissions but the world needs what they are selling and will continue to do so for decades to come. The problem is, a few decades from now, it will be too late to undo the environmental damage caused by too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Australia Proposes Carbon Offsets
The success of the Albanese plan will depend on the number and scale of new fossil fuel developments in Australia in coming years, the extent to which companies rely on carbon offsets rather than making cuts onsite, and the integrity of those offsets. The Guardian says, “You can’t offset your way to dealing with the climate crisis. Emissions reductions will need to be deep and direct.” It warns the offsets could be used to justify new fossil fuel developments that would add vast amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere for decades to come. The goal is to cut emissions, not facilitate new ones.
While a carbon credit is meant to represent one ton of carbon dioxide, scientists say an offset created through forest regeneration is not equal to a ton released from fossil fuels. The latter can persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years while the former is less likely to survive that long. It is another argument for why offsets should be used sparingly.
Bowen’s rationale for not imposing limits on offsets is that a cut of nearly 5% each year is substantial, that some firms do not yet have technology available to make substantial direct cuts, and businesses need flexibility to achieve their goals while keeping costs down. He claims to be confident the policy will lead to significant onsite cuts or else companies will face increasing cost for purchasing offsets. But Labor has not released analysis to show how much of the cuts they expect to be direct, or explained why it it is against placing some sort of limit on how many offsets can be used to guarantee that cuts are made onsite.
RepuTex, a consultancy that did some work for Labor before the election, has released modelling that offers some support for the government’s case. It estimates that in 2030 the bulk of cuts — 74% — will be onsite. However, a report by Climate Analytics found that allowing unlimited offsets could effectively give fossil fuel companies permission to go ahead with new developments that will increase how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
A new analysis led by one of the most vocal critics — Professor Andrew Macintosh, a former chair of a government emissions reduction assurance committee — says flawed existing carbon credit projects could create at least 60 million low integrity carbon credits that do not represent genuine emissions reductions over the next eight years. Since 8 years is about all the time the world has to stop pumping massive amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, relying on a system that may or may not work as intended seems irresponsible.
The sad news in all this is that Australia, if it chose to do so, could generate all the renewable energy it would ever need and use that energy to decarbonize its principal industries. Offsets and credits are half measures that will accomplish too little if they work as intended and nothing of consequence if they do not.
We at CleanTechnica always enjoy the searing insights of Juice Media and its many Honest Government videos. The flap over carbon offsets has inspired those folks to create yet another video dealing with the “safeguard mechanism” which more than anything else seems to safeguard the continuing climate killing activities of the fossil fuel crowd. As usual, the language used by Juice Media is coarse and may be offensive to some. If you are squeamish, you may choose not to view this latest video.