The impact of the Australian government allowing fossil fuel companies access to unlimited offsets –  especially  from the land sector – would give a green light to new coal and gas production, lead to a continued rise in emissions and threaten Australia’s ability to meet its climate targets, according to new analysis released today.

The analysis, by Climate Analytics, outlines the fundamental scientific shortcomings of land sector offsets, such as tree planting and forest regeneration, which account for more than half the total offsets generated to date. It finds:

  • The majority of land sector offsets fail to deliver genuine or additional emission reductions. 
  • The projects underpinning land sector offsets are, by design, not permanent, meaning it’s likely much of the carbon sequestered will eventually be lost back to the atmosphere, and many would have happened without the money provided by the sale of offsets while many more do not represent emissions reductions at all.
  • Using Australia’s land sector to offset fossil fuel emissions is fundamentally risky.

The analysis calculates that for every Australian carbon credit unit (ACCU) generated to offset one tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) production in Australia, about 8.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent lifecycle emissions are emitted globally.

For coal, the equivalent is even bigger, for every tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions from coal mining offset on average about 58-69 tonnes of CO2 equivalent lifecycle emissions are emitted globally.

“There’s a considerable real world impact of enabling fossil fuel companies to offset their emissions and continue, or even expand, production, rather than actually reduce their emissions, yet this is exactly what the Australian government is proposing,” said Ryan Wilson of Climate Analytics, the report’s lead author.

Climate Analytics was commissioned by Solutions for Climate Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation to look at the scientific issues surrounding the application of offsets in the Australian policy context, specifically in relation to the safeguard mechanism review.

Gavan McFadzean, climate program manager at ACF, said: “While the Albanese government’s redesign of the safeguard mechanism significantly improves on the Coalition’s version in several respects, the proposal for unlimited offsets allows big polluting companies, which have done massive climate damage already, to pay to keep polluting.

“We urge the government to revise its design so the scheme can actually become an effective tool to cut emissions from Australia’s major polluters.”

Every tonne of carbon emitted from the fossil fuel industry stays in the atmosphere for far longer than the life of a land-based offset which in Australia, at best, is guaranteed for only 100 years. For each tonne of carbon released into the atmosphere, around 40% remains after 100 years, 20-25% remains after 1,000 years, and up to 20% after 10,000 years, centuries after a land-sector offset stops absorbing carbon.

“Carbon emissions from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, which make up roughly two thirds of global annual greenhouse gas emissions, are the most acute threat exacerbating global warming, and those least able to be addressed through impermanent land-based offsets,” said Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare.

“Regenerating and protecting forests is fundamentally good for climate and the environment,” said Dr. Barry Traill, Director of Solutions for Climate Australia.

“However, even for the highest integrity offsets there is a risk that the trees may be lost through fire and drought, especially with a warming climate. Our first priority needs to be reducing climate pollution directly.” 

Read: Why offsets are not a viable alternative to cutting emissions

Header pic by Annette Ruzicka

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