Peter Dutton has reignited Australia’s climate wars. What’s he saying – and what’s the reality?

<span>Countless studies over decades have found failing to act on emissions quickly is likely to damage the economy far more than policies to cut emissions.</span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Countless studies over decades have found failing to act on emissions quickly is likely to damage the economy far more than policies to cut emissions.Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Australian climate wars are back – or perhaps they never went away. Peter Dutton reignited them by telling News Corp he would not support the nationally legislated 2030 emissions reduction target. That triggered accusations he would put Australia in breach of the landmark Paris climate agreement.

What does it all mean? We look at the claims – and the reality.

Has Dutton said he would pull out of the Paris climate agreement?

No. He says a Dutton government would stay in the deal, which was agreed by the leaders of more than 190 countries, including the then Coalition government, in 2015.

To focus on whether he would formally pull out is a straw man, and not the issue.

What is the issue?

Dutton says he would abandon Australia’s emissions reduction target for 2030 – a 43% cut compared with 2005 levels – and not put forward an alternative target before the election.

The target was legislated in 2022 and submitted to the UN as part of Australia’s formal pledge to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

Climate experts say Dutton’s position is a promise to break with what was agreed in the French capital. That included a commitment that countries would increase pledges every five years and not backslide on them.

But Coalition MPs say they still support the Paris agreement, and that deal is about reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Isn’t that right?

Related: Peter Dutton’s energy policy is a political death wish – and utterly irresponsible in the face of the climate emergency | Ian Lowe

No. The net zero goal is included in the Paris deal, but so are many other things. The Coalition is cherrypicking.

The overarching goal is to hold global heating to well below 2C and trying for 1.5C above preindustrial levels.

Is the Coalition’s position – to slow or stop emissions cuts now and require rapid cuts after 2040 – consistent with this overarching goal?

No. It is the opposite of what scientists and policy experts say is required.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global climate science body the Coalition has cited to defend its position, found limiting heating to 1.5C would require rapid cuts this decade.

Specifically, they said it would need a global 43% cut by 2030 and 60% cut by 2035 compared with 2019 levels.

These goals were acknowledged in an agreement reached at the last major UN climate summit in Dubai in December.

The Albanese government’s goal is also 43%. Does that mean the legislated target is consistent with Australia’s fair share in limiting heating to 1.5C?

No. The baseline is different.

If you translate the numbers to Australia’s chosen baseline of 2005 baseline, we should be making at least a 56% cut by 2030.

But even this undersells it. This target assumes every country acts at the same pace. Under the UN process wealthy countries have agreed they have a responsibility to act faster than developing nations.

It means Australia should be doing more than 56% by 2030 to play its part.

Bill Hare, a climate scientist and head of the science and policy institute Climate Analytics, says a fair target would be more than 60%.

The same calculation method suggests a fair 2035 emissions reduction target, due before February next year, would be more than 70%.

How did Labor choose its 43% target?

Before the last election Labor asked the consultants RepuTex to look at its policies and calculate the emissions reduction that would result by 2030.

RepuTex examined what would happen with renewable energy, estimating it would be 82% of supply, and considered Labor’s proposed changes to limit emissions from big industrial sites.

It came up with 43%.

Are we on track to reach 43%?

Probably not.

An emissions projections report by the climate change department late last year estimated existing and announced policies would get Australia to a 42% cut by 2030. The government says this shows it is roughly on track.

But the projections assume all policies will be delivered. They may not be. Government agencies and independent experts have warned the rollout of large-scale renewable energy and transmission lines is not happening fast enough.

Labor has responded by ramping up a renewable energy and storage underwriting scheme. But there are issues with planning approvals and social licence in regional communities, and coal generation in the national grid is up slightly this year. Renewable energy generation is hovering at just below 40% of the total.

It suggests further policies – including in areas beyond the electricity grid – will be needed to hit the 2030 emissions target.

Is the 43% unachievable, as the Coalition claims?

No. According to government data released two weeks ago, Australia’s emissions are 29% less than they were in 2005.

Some of this is due to a rare policy that survived the climate wars last decade – a national renewable energy target that helped build solar and wind and push out coal.

There are multiple lines of evidence from reputable organisations – Climateworks Centre, for example – that have found Australia could reach and surpass a 43% target using affordable, available technology.

Should Australia stop trying for the target if there is a risk it may miss it, as the Coalition says?

If you’re taking advice from Homer Simpson, maybe.

Most institutions and experts with an interest in climate policy argue the country should strive to meet the target, regardless of whether it is challenging. They include organisations that represent the company’s major employers, manufacturers, investors and electricity and gas companies.

Their arguments can be summarised as: we need to make emissions cuts, we need to get on with it, and we need consistent policy and targets on the road to net zero emissions.

Peter Dutton says the 43% target would ‘destroy the economy’. Is this correct?

Related: Barnaby Joyce and Keith Pitt call on Coalition to abandon Paris agreement as Albanese says Dutton ‘all negativity and no plan’

No. It should be seen as part of an Australian tradition of hyperbolic political claims suggesting climate policy is a greater threat to the country than the climate crisis.

There are huge holes in the logic here, not least that the Coalition also says it would cut emissions by 43% – and much more – but just do it a few years later.

Does Dutton believe these emissions cuts would also destroy the economy? Presumably not.

He plans to deliver at least some of them with nuclear energy, which the CSIRO and others have found is likely to be far more expensive than solar and wind, with backup support, which the Coalition wants to use less of.

Countless studies over decades have found failing to act on emissions quickly is likely to damage the economy far more than policies to cut emissions. Investors warn the country will miss out on the chance to develop competitive green industries if it stops while others move.

On a global scale, the evidence is that every fraction of a degree of heating increases the risk of extreme weather events that cost lives and billions of dollars in damage.

Is Dutton worse than Scott Morrison on climate, as Anthony Albanese says?

In policy terms there is little difference. Both claimed to be committed to net zero. Neither had significant policies to cut emissions.

Where they do differ is in emphasis. Morrison had a 2030 emissions target and tried to convince voters before the 2022 election he was serious about climate change.

Dutton is telling voters he is serious about stopping action on climate change.

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