Judging by the debate on climate change policy in the national parliament this week, Australia appears to be crawling, rather than sprinting, towards meaningful cuts to greenhouse emissions.

Australians have suffered through more than a decade of climate wars, leaving us without any national emissions reduction policy. And that’s why climate pollution from Australian industry continues to rise.

The policy being debated, the Safeguard Mechanism, is a critical start, but not the final word, on meaningful climate action. It’s important that we get it right, but it covers just 28 per cent of our domestic emissions.

There is an even bigger mountain to climb: the climate pollution we export through coal and gas is double what we produce at home.

Our annual domestic greenhouse emissions in 2020 were around 494 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Emissions from exported coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) alone, however were 1,073 million tonnes. This is more than the emissions caused by the devastating 2019-20 bushfires.

The Safeguard Mechanism is a crucial policy lever that the government needs to achieve its commitment to cut emissions by 43 per cent this decade. The government’s current proposed improvements to the Tony Abbott-era scheme won’t get it there. It has to lift its game.

ACF is calling on the government, and all political parties – including the Coalition – to work together and finalise a strong Safeguard Mechanism that delivers genuine emissions reduction from our biggest industrial polluters.

The Safeguard Mechanism must act as a floor, not a ceiling, to Australia’s climate ambition. We can’t risk failing to meet our emissions reduction targets and decarbonising industry so that it is clean and competitive in a zero-carbon economy.

The government has indicated that it is essential that a strengthened policy is in place by July, but right now there are too many loopholes in the government’s proposal which would allow the country’s biggest polluters to continue to crawl towards cutting the climate pollution they create.

One example is that it should be the priority for companies to reduce their emissions at the source, rather than allowing their first choice to be buying offsets and simply continuing to pollute.

The offsets scheme in this country is still flawed and despite the Chubb review, integrity concerns remain about many millions of offsets that could be used in place of real emissions reduction. Over-reliance on offsets is risky.

New entrants to the scheme must comply with international best practice baselines and enter the scheme at net zero, which would mean bringing no additional emissions into the Safeguard Mechanism. New facilities should first cover off their emissions with best possible technologies, then purchase Safeguard Mechanism Credits. High-quality offsets should only be used as a last resort.

But even a strengthened Safeguard Mechanism will not fully deal with the most urgent climate change challenge in front of the government this term: ending the approval of new coal and gas projects and rapidly phasing out existing coal and gas production.

No matter where in the world our coal and gas is burnt, it fuels climate damage. We have a moral obligation to stop any new coal and gas projects and we have an economic incentive to replace exports of coal and gas with renewable energy and things we make with it.

This week’s ‘final warning’ report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sends a clear and urgent message to the Australian Parliament: There is absolutely no place for new or extended coal mines or gas projects in the third decade of the 21st century.

Any true assessment of the climate impacts of new coal and gas mines – through our national environment law, for example, would show these proposals do not stack up environmentally.

May’s federal budget must also draw a line in the sand on fossil fuel subsidies. Taxpayers should not be subsidising coal and gas in any way – these funds should be redirected into climate action.

Climate damage – through floods, fires, droughts and heatwaves – is already harming the people and nature we love, our jobs and the economy.

There is nothing we can do now about the lost decade, but we can start the urgent work of curbing climate pollution.

Let’s stop crawling and join the sprint to ending our reliance on digging up and burning coal and gas.

Opinion piece published by the Canberra Times

Kelly O’Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.