Blog | 3rd May, 2021

Victoria’s climate targets are wedged between politics and science

This opinion piece was first published in the Age newspaper here.

Climate targets are a curious thing. They can be technocratically dull, and yet they’re also extremely political. It’s this tension between the science and the politics of climate change which makes targets to reduce emissions so challenging for governments.

On Sunday, Victoria’s climate targets were announced, aiming to cut emissions by 28-33 per cent by 2025 and 45-50 per cent by 2030. There are two questions many people might be asking, one for the politics – how does this compare against others, and how easily can it be done? And one for the science – is this enough to avert the worse impacts of catastrophic climate change?

Let’s look at the politics first.

Over the past fortnight, a major international shift has taken place. The Australian government watched this moment and did nothing. Many of our major trading partners and strategic allies committed to roughly halving their emissions by 2030. Victoria is trying to match this, and the new targets are just shy of the United States’ pledge to cut emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030.

Meanwhile the Morrison government continues with its head-in-the-sand approach, with a pathetic target of only 26-28 per cent by 2030. This target is now even more out of step with our trade partners and international allies, and costing our country economic opportunities and diplomatic credibility as the world rapidly shifts away from polluting fuels to clean energy.

But more than that, the federal Coalition’s decade of sabotage and delay on climate has put state governments in a difficult position. If they want anything to happen on climate change, they have to do it themselves. In this political context, with an obstructionist federal government dragging down ambition, Victoria’s plan is significant. It’s well ahead of NSW’s emissions reduction target of 35 per cent by 2030 even though our state is saddled with the dirtiest coal power stations in the country.

On the other hand, the Andrews government has trumpeted its progressive credentials and its enthusiasm for climate solutions like renewable energy. They ought to be aiming higher than NSW and other states.

So that’s the political context – but it’s only one side of the story. We also need to look at the science, and judge these targets against the urgency of the climate crisis we’re facing.

We know that a rise in global temperatures is absolutely devastating for Victoria. Rainfall and temperatures in the state are already tracking against the worst climate projections. We’re already suffering more frequent and intense extreme weather events – heatwaves, bushfires and drought – at the current level of warming.

We also know that the bulk of efforts to cut emissions need to happen this decade, otherwise we’re at even greater risk of triggering climate tipping points – irreversible thresholds like the melting of the polar icecaps that, if crossed, would take away our ability to get the climate system back under control.

Against this backdrop, we need to do everything we can as fast as possible. Recent analysis from leading scientists says Australia (and therefore Victoria) should be cutting emissions by about 75 per cent by 2030, not 50 per cent. The government’s own advice was that targets in the range of 45-60 per cent have very little hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

The UN Secretary General has called on developed countries to phase out coal power by 2030. But the Andrews government’s Climate Change Strategy leaves two of our four big coal power stations still burning coal in a decade’s time.

All of this means that, judged against the urgency of the crisis we face, the Victorian government climate targets do not go far enough.

And so that gets us to the final verdict – these emissions targets are politically bold, but scientifically inadequate.

Nothing ends with this announcement. The climate crisis remains unresolved and we face the growing risk of shocks to our lives – both from direct climate impacts like bushfires, drought and heatwaves, but also from the cascading effects of these disasters on the global economy and to geopolitical stability.

It is true that it shouldn’t be up to state governments to do the heavy lifting (hello Scott Morrison), but to date that’s all that has made a difference. Caught between the politics and the science, we must encourage governments that are actually taking some responsibility for cutting pollution, and praise them for their leadership … while at the same time pointing out that we need to go much further, much faster.