OECD’s environmental KPIs for Australia add grist to calls for change

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“Australia is home to a tenth of the global species and is seen by many as synonymous with pristine coastal areas and an outback brimming with nature,” said OECD Deputy Environment Director Anthony Cox when he launched the third (since 1998) evidence-based OECD Environmental Performance review of Australia in Canberra yesterday.

At that moment tracts of Tasmanian wilderness were (and remain) under cataclysmic threat from raging bushfires, the famed Murray-Darling River system was host to the third horrendous mass fish killing in just over a month due to temperature variation and water mismanagement, and the Government doggedly resisted showing leadership on energy policy that would help transition Australia towards lower emissions and help stabilise global temperatures.

As Cox pointed out, “Australia is increasingly exposed to rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, bushfires and drought”, which makes it all the more important that the country as a whole take “a more proactive role in fighting climate change”.

Solar PV a bright spot, but …

The OECD reports that although Australia is “becoming a global leader” in its uptake of solar photovoltaics as a renewable form of energy generation, coal, oil and gas still make up 93% of the overall energy mix, compared to the OECD average of 80%.

It notes that the country’s power sector, the highest emitting sector (34%) because of its continued reliance on coal for two-thirds of generated electricity, is not subject to emission-reduction constraints.

And the overarching report recommendation is that the Government implement “a national, integrated energy and climate policy framework for 2030 based on a low-emission development strategy for 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.”

Australia’s emissions, according a report released by the Government itself in December under cover of Christmas are not on track to meet 2030 emissions-reduction targets, but rather to increase 4% over predicted 2020 levels, and continue to grow to 2030.

Although electricity generation is not one of the drivers of increased emissions, deepening Australia’s electrification of industries, which can in turn be powered by increases in renewable capacity, would help reduce emissions from areas such as agriculture (consider solar-powered irrigation, greenhouse food production and food processing) and transport — which are expected to increase their emissions over the coming decade.

Transport is still Australia’s second largest emitter, responsible for 18% of carbon emissions, the OECD report confirms. It says, “Growth in CO2 and NOx and particulate emissions from transport justifies updating standards on fuel quality and vehicle emissions to be on a par with global best practices.

Australia’s slow uptake of clean electric vehicles (EVs) has long been attributed in part to government failure to consistently tighten vehicle emissions standards.

The 17 recommendations of a Senate Committee Report on Electric Vehicles released this week included a national target on the number of electric vehicles in state and federal government fleets, and consultation with industry to plan for the rollout of a national public charging network for EVs.

Vision, planning and co-ordinated policy are lacking

Emphasis in all reports currently hitting the fan is on developing co-ordinated strategies to transition away from high-emitting fuels and towards electrification — the needs of which can be met by renewable energy sources if investors and developers could rely on government leadership, policy and demonstrated resolve.

“Lack of a national long-term vision on sustainable development” is identified by the OECD as one of Australia’s greatest challenges.

Although the OECD acknowledges the clarity of Victorian and ACT targets for achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and 2045, respectively, it urges improved “co-ordination of renewable support programmes across states and territories”, and the fostering of “system integration of renewables in the National Electricity Market by developing interconnections among regions”.

It hails Australia as “one of the few OECD countries with a national green investment bank” in the form of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which has since its inception in 2012 committed $5.3 billion to renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects with a total value of $19 billion.

Even so, the report notes that government research and development budgets for energy and the environment have “declined in recent years”. And that eco-innovation requires “a clear long-term policy framework, strong price signals and secured government support” for R&D.

Overall, the report is damning. It describes Australia as “one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries” and therefore as having “considerable responsibility in global environmental protection efforts”. And yet Australia remains among the 10 largest greenhouse gas emitters in the OECD.

The recommended “strengthening” of “ambitions on climate change and biodiversity policies” is unlikely to evolve from the current government, but each such report underscores the need for a fresh, cohesive approach to turning back the CO2 and making the most of Australia’s OECD-reiterated, “Untapped renewable-energy potential.”