Australia, Climate Change and the Complacent Country

The Hon Kevin Rudd, AC

26th Prime Minister of Australia

Address to The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA)

Sydney, 12 February, 2020


In 2007, I called climate change the greatest economic, environmental and moral challenge of our generation.

I made no apology for it then. I make no apology for it now. It remains my position today.

I did so because I knew that Australia, as one of the twenty largest emitters on Earth, and the single-highest per capita emitter, had a responsibility to act – both as part of our collective responsibility for the future of the planet itself, and as an act of inter-generational justice for those who come after us.

I also did so because I could see how vulnerable our country was economically to the impacts of climate change.

This was underlined by the 2008 Garnaut Review that I first commissioned as Leader of the Opposition. Including his finding that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense” and that “this should generally be observable by 2020”. We have now seen this come true before our very eyes.

But the scientific case, both nationally and globally, has become even stronger since then.

  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest Assessment Report from 2014, temperatures will be up to 4.8°C higher by 2100;
  • Sea levels will rise between half a metre and a metre on average globally over the same period; and,
  • From their more recent Special Report in 2018, things will be much worse if we do not manage to stay within the 1.5°C“acceptable” limit identified in the Paris Agreement, as opposed to anything higher. In terms of biodiversity alone, twice as many species would lose half their geographic range with only half a degree of difference. 4.8 degrees would become unspeakable.

At the same time, according to our own national scientific research agency – the CSIRO – Australia’s climate has already warmed over 1°C since 1910. As a result:

  • Extremely high monthly maximum temperatures that used to occur around two percent of the time now happen about 12 percent of the time, and rising;
  • There has been a decline of around 11 percent in our mid-year rainfall in south-eastern Australia since the 1990s, and 20 percent in southwestern Australia since 1970;
  • The length of drought for our farmers will also increase up to 20 percent by 2090;
  • Plus, we are projected to experience sea level rise here of almost one metre by 2090. If the Antarctic ice sheet collapses, this will be more like 1.3 metres.

What we often forget is that around our country there is 35,000 kilometres of coastal road and rail infrastructure directly at risk from this sea level rise and storm surges, worth many billions of dollars.

Indeed, according to Deloitte Access Economics, the total economic cost of natural disasters in the ten years to 2016 averaged $18.2 billion per year. That’s equivalent to 1.2 percent of GDP each year over the same period.

This is because disasters don’t just take lives, destroy homes and crush livelihoods as we have seen this summer. But they close ports, sap insurance pools, devastate food production, undermine tourism, and smash government budgets.

Yet despite all this, despite this Great Australian Inferno, despite this happening on the basis of only a 1 degree increase in temperatures so far today, and not the additional 1.5 degrees increase we hope for in a best case scenario for the century to come, here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, on climate change policy we are still the complacent country.

Australia has become one of the first canaries down the global climate change mineshaft.

Yet a government, captured by climate change denialists, still refuses to act.

A global perspective

Sometimes it is helpful to put things into a global perspective.

As the latest UN Emissions Gap Report told us at the end of last year, even if every country fully implements their current Paris targets for emissions reductions, we are still on track for 3.2°C of average warming by the end of this century.

And if every country did as little as Australia is doing, or if they sought to use the same dodgy climate accounting tricks as Australia is by deploying carryover credits from a completely different climate action regime to do even less, then global average temperatures would be measurably worse.

It is a fallacy to say, as many climate change denialists do, that the rest of the world is not acting.

China – now the world’s largest emitter – flatlined its emissions between 2014 and 2016 and is expected to peak its emissions by its planned date of 2030, if not well before.

As the world’s largest developer now of renewable energy technology, China is also expected to overshoot its goal to achieve a 20 percent mix of renewables domestically by 2030 and to reduce the carbon intensity of its overall energy system by 65 percent over the same period.

India too is expected to meet what are probably the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world. That is why, as Prime Minister Modi announced recently, they are more than doubling their goal to bring on more than 175 gigawatts of renewables by 2022, to now reach 450 gigawatts. This comes on the back of having achieved their original targets for solar power specifically more than four years in advance.

Even the United States, where President Trump is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and has rolled back many of the underlying domestic policies and regulations required to achieve the emissions target set by the Obama Administration, they remain within striking distance of achieving their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Driving this are market forces of cheaper renewables and natural gas leading to a fast decline of coal-fired power despite President Trump’s intentions to revive the industry – and an aggressive stepping up of sub-national action by cities, companies and states in the absence of US federal leadership.

All this is before you get to some of the more ambitious major emitters like the European Union which has committed to achieve a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (on 1990 levels) and is expected to soon increase this target to at least 35 percent.

The UK – which was one of the heavy lifters of the EU’s collective target – is likely to now go even further individually in its own name. Just this week Boris Johnson’s conservative government announced they will bring forward a ban on all diesel, fuel and even hybrid vehicles to 2035 in yet another demonstration of their climate leadership.

The argument therefore that the rest of the world is not acting on mitigation is a demonstrable lie.

Australia – from climate leader to climate laggard

Regrettably, the Australian climate action story is the reverse.

At every opportunity, conservative government after conservative government have sought to carve out opportunities for Australia to get away with doing very little at all.

First Kyoto Commitment Low-Barred

Right back in 1997 during the original negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol, it was the Howard Government that held the entire process hostage at the eleventh hour until  they were granted an exception that would enable Australia to actually increase our emissions by 8 percent under the first commitment period running through to 2012.

Howard also insisted that reducing land clearing would be included in this already unchallenging target, knowing this would artificially advantage Australia because land clearing had already been on a steep decline since 1990, the baseline year the Howard Government proposed.

Then to add insult to injury, Howard of course never ratified Kyoto. I did so as my first act in office in 2007.

So, let’s be honest: it was never going to be hard to achieve our target under Kyoto’s first commitment period – it was so low to begin with.

Paris Commitment Low-Barred Too

Our second Kyoto target to reduce emissions by 5 percent on 2000 levels by 2020 was a unilateral commitment. But that’s why we proposed increasing this target fivefold in the event of a deal like Paris – i.e. where other countries also decided to make ambitious commitments.

And this was also before we had even considered how much further we would have gone post-2020 under a new global regime like Paris itself, which included for the first time both developed and developing countries alike.

Notwithstanding this, the fact is that when my government left office in 2013, our emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent gases were projected to be around 555 million tonnes by 2020 with the policies we had put in place (according to the Department of Environment).

This would have been the lowest they had been in 20 years.

But since then Australia’s emissions have risen on average one percent a year for every year since the conservatives came to power in 2013. Indeed, according to the universally respected Ndevr Environmental Group (which specialises in calculating national emissions performance), if you include emissions from land clearing, Australia’s annual emissions are now the highest they have ever been.

Even if you believe the government’s latest figures, in a best-case scenario our emissions have still increased for the last three years and only reduced by a rounding error more recently.

In fact, at their current rate of decline, it would take us 230 years to reach net zero emissions. I.e. by the year 2250! Whereas other countries are already adopting 2050 as the national and global target date to achieve net zero emissions.

Mr. Morrison may say that we will “meet and beat” our 2020 target under the Second Kyoto Commitment period. But as you’ll see, the only reason for that is that it was an appallingly low target (of 5% reductions by 2020 measured against 2000 levels) to begin with.

The Conservative government never increased this 5% target, despite the ambitious regime agreed to at Paris in 2020 – an outcome which would have triggered our government’s commitment to increase the carbon reduction target to a 25% cut.

Instead, by Abbott sticking with a 5% only cut by 2020, it created one of the lowest bars in the world today, particularly when you consider the baseline we were working off going back to Howard under the First Kyoto Commitment period.

Yet despite the low bar, the current government is still struggling to meet even that.

Paris Commitments – Australia’s Third “low bar” in a Row

The Abbott government then went about low-barring Australia’s emission reduction targets under the Paris Commitment period for 2020-30.

What was missed by many Australians was that the emissions reduction commitment adopted by the Abbott government after Paris was also a sleight of hand.

The commitment to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030 (against 2005 levels) that the Abbott Government put on the table in the lead-up to Paris, was nothing more than a public relations ploy.

This headline target was chosen to superficially mirror that of the Obama Administration’s, sliding over the fact that the Americans would achieve the same 26-28% cuts by 2025, not by 2030. That is five years earlier.

The delivery period makes an enormous difference. Indeed, if you actually compared like with like, the US commitment would have looked more like a 41 percent reduction by 2030/

By exploiting this deliberate sleight of hand, the Abbott Government’s talking point on the day they announced their own lacklustre target was that we were doing exactly what the Americans were doing. This was a lie. And the conservatives knew it.

The fact that the Murdoch media focussed entirely on the 26 to 28 percent figure, and not the far less ambitious timeline over which it was to be achieved, made it a political success for Abbott. But not, alas, a success for the planet. The planet doesn’t lie.

To make matters worse, Ndevr (the emissions calculation agency) predicts that on current trajectories, Australia will also miss this minimalist 2030 target under Paris by around 860 mega tonnes of CO2. That is the equivalent of more than one and half times Australia’s entire annual nationwide carbon emissions. In fact, on current projections, we are on track for an eight percent increase in our emissions by 2030.

By contrast, the World Resources Institute projected in 2017 that almost 60 countries covering more than 60 percent of global emissions will peak their emissions by 2030, including China.

Furthermore, notwithstanding this minimalist commitment, the Morrison Government is further undermining Australia’s climate change action credentials by using dodgy accounting tricks to try and meet this already debased benchmark.

The Abuse of “Carbon Credits” 

This involves using so-called “carry over Kyoto credits” from the pre-2020 Kyoto regime of 370 million tonnes of carbon, to offset the current government’s  emissions reductions obligations under the post-Kyoto regime from 2020-2030 agreed to at Paris.

This “banking” of Australia’s overachievement from the pre-2020 Kyoto regime – especially the emissions reductions made during my own government’s time in office – to make up the shortfall in the current government’s lacklustre efforts is a disgrace.

To be clear: if these 370 metric tonnes of Kyoto credits are now able to be used, that would represent around 50 percent of our total abatement task through to 2030 in a best-case scenario. Some argue as high as 80 percent.

In real terms, this would mean our lacklustre target of 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2030 would really only require about a 15 or 16 percent cut – with these “offset credits” making up the difference.

In this context, it is easy to understand why the rest of the world is disgusted at our insistence on being able to use these credits under the Paris Agreement. They were never intended for this purpose. They were intended for the Kyoto commitment period only. That expired in 2020. Not in 2030.

New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Sweden have all explicitly ruled out ever using the same credits even if they were allowed, and EU legislation specifically prohibits it.

In fact, more than 100 countries expressly argued against our insistence on being able to use them at December’s UN Climate Conference in Madrid, with our stubbornness playing no small part in ensuring the talks ultimately broke down and were kicked down the road for yet another year.

But it’s not just that the Morrison Government have become international climate change cheats. That’s bad enough.

It’s not just that we contributed significantly to failure in Madrid.

It is that Australia, by improperly using these carbon credits from the past, also opens the door for other countries to unlock the 13 billion megatons of other carbon credits accumulated under the Kyoto regime. Under the Australian precedent, these can now also be used by others if they wished, therefore totally undermining the greenhouse gas abatement impact for the planet. That amount (13 billion megatonnes of carbon) is roughly the same as what China and the United States – as the world’s two largest polluters – emit in an entire year. Let that sink in.

Furthermore, it opens the door for developing countries like China and India, that were not included  in the Kyoto Protocol emissions reductions commitments (Kyoto was for developed economies only), to insist on being able to use all kinds of other future carbon credits to boost their own future abatement numbers. Indeed, we’ve already seen these arguments start to be made: i.e. if it’s good enough for Australia to do this, then why not us too.

Let me be clear: our government would never have used Kyoto carbon credits beyond the Kyoto commitment periods of which they were a core part. To use them under this new Paris regime out to 2030 and beyond is criminal. The precedent it has established for other bigger emitters around the world is frightening.

These actions add up to absolute climate change vandalism.

 Our record on climate action

The reason the current government finds itself in this predicament of not being able to meet serious and substantive emissions reductions commitments  is because of the systematic campaign it has waged to dismantle our country’s efforts to address climate change since 2013.

As you will recall, there were three major components to Labor’s efforts to reduce emissions domestically during the period 2007 to 2013.

First, the most effective measure we took was our increasing of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target to 20 percent of total electricity supply by 2020.

As a result, we have increased renewables from 4 percent of our electricity share, to some 19 percent as of today. And despite the conservatives’ misgivings, we are on track to exceed the 20 percent target set, largely because we embedded it in law, which they have so far been unable to repeal. In fact, according to the Department of the Environment, we are now at 27% renewables.

Through policy and legislation, my government has created an entire new industry in Australia. Before our government’s election, the renewable energy industry did not have critical mass. Now it does.

To illustrate this, in 2014 alone – the year after we left office – about 2.2 million small-scale renewable systems were installed as a result of the RET, and the emissions reductions from this scheme alone represents about a third of our total abatement efforts.

The second major measure was our pricing of carbon.

Indeed, some nine months after the implementation of price on carbon, the Department of Climate Change and Renewable Energy reported that emissions from electricity generation had fallen by about 8.6 percent, and 2013 saw the largest fall in Australia’s overall emissions in some 24 years of monitoring.

An ANU study has shown similar numbers, indicating an 8.2 percent drop between mid-2012 and mid-2014 in our overall emissions, compared to the two years prior. This equates to somewhere between 11 and 17 million tonnes of CO2 abatement over that period.

Third was our Energy Efficient Homes Package. 1.2 million homes or 20 percent of our national housing stock benefitted from the installation of insulation, and another 73,000 homes received a rebate for installing solar hot water systems.

In a country of extremes like ours, up to 40 percent of all household energy is devoted to heating and cooling. So better home insulation can reduce energy bills by around 40 percent on average.

And our government (in figures since deleted from the website by the current government) estimated this scheme alone produced savings of approximately 20,000 gigawatt hours of electricity, or roughly 19.5 million tonnes of CO2 through to today.

There were problems with implementation with these programs, including four tragic fatalities for which shoddy contractors were properly held accountable under OH&S laws.

Taken together, these three policies cumulatively resulted in roughly a 10 percent drop in our emissions in real terms. No small achievement in a short period of time.

Indeed, my government’s MRET plus the Energy Efficient Homes Package, remain today the only remaining national programs effectively cutting carbon emissions.

By contrast, the current government has acted in the reverse direction, repealing existing programs and doing nothing to replace them.

This goes well beyond their reckless decision to repeal our price on carbon.

It includes their efforts to abolish the Climate Change Authority we set up, which provided exactly the independent advice on climate change the country so desperately needs.

It includes their successful abolition of the Climate Change Commission which was designed to help grapple with the science and communicate to the Australian people what it meant.

It also includes the conservative’s determination to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (again of our creation) which parliament thankfully stopped, but which the current government then proceeded to starve of funding. For example, under our government ARENA was given $3.2 billion in funding out to 2020, only to suffer like so many at the hands of the 2014 Abbott budget with a $435 million cut.

 The case for stepping up our level of national ambition – Net Zero Emissions

After the Great Australian Inferno this summer, the question now is whether and how the country can change course.

Given the conservatives’ political record so far, the truth is they will only change if there is a sea change in national public opinion – one which undermines their age-old predisposition to play the politics that:

  1. the science is unclear;
  2. it doesn’t matter what we do, because we are so small relative to the big emitters; and
  3. if we did act to significant bring emissions down, then it undermines“old faithful”- the argument the conservatives  have used for more than a decade – that we should be afraid of the impact of climate change action on the cost to business and the cost to working families.

The problem for the conservatives is that businesses here and businesses around the world are already starting to act of their own accord, tired and fed up with   government’s failure to do enough.

We need to understand that globally, the climate action train has left the station. The global shift to decarbonise the world economy is underway. We either get on board. Or we risk an abrupt and painful course correction later.

This is now crystal clear from the finance industry.

Last September, the Asset Owner Alliance pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in its $2.4 trillion of investments by 2050.

Second, the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, has said it will divest from any company that makes more than a quarter of its profits from coal by the middle of this year, and will increase by more than tenfold the number of sustainable assets under its management by the end of the decade. As Blackrock’s own chief, Larry Finke has said, “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance”.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why more than 120 countries now have targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. As now does every Australian state and territory, as well as some of our biggest mining and gas guzzling companies like BHP and Qantas.

The fact that the government has only just now confirmed it will follow through on its promise at the G20, and in front of the Pacific family at last year’s regional forum, to develop a long-term 2050 emissions strategy, shows they are doing so to take the heat out of the current debate.

Just last week we saw the conservative foreign minister of the UK push us to do just this. The important thing now though is whether we follow the UK’s lead and adopt a net zero target as part of that strategy, and whether we embed a framework built around this long-term pathway into national legislation.

At the same time, more than 100 countries have also pledged to increase their original Paris targets for 2030. The oil giant Norway became the latest to do so last week. Australia has not done so.

Those that come empty handed to the UN Conference of Parties in Glasgow in November will likely be a small minority, and Australia seems determined to be among them.

The Morrison Government has already turned Australia into a pariah state on global climate change action. A failure to increase our current paltry levels of ambition at Glasgow would entrench this perception and conclusion about Australia well into the future.

We need to remember that the whole reason these countries have said they will increase their targets this year is because that is exactly what every country, including Australia under the Conservatives, formally agreed to do under the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The five-yearly “ratchet mechanism” established by Paris was designed to help us close the emissions gap by ensuring countries came back to the table at regular intervals to produce targets that represented their “highest possible ambition”.

It built on the Copenhagen framework, which my Government helped establish, where we learnt that it was essential that countries went through this process collectively, knowing what other countries were doing together, so that there would be np free-riders.

We also agreed that the shorter these intervals were, the better. This would mean more political decision points along the road, as the science became stronger, the impacts more compelling, the technology more advanced, and the cost of renewables progressively cheaper. This was the logic of the Paris roadmap.

Take for example the cost of an average watt of solar power in the United States. In Copenhagen in 2009, also about the time we passed the MRET in Australia when the conservatives were warning that our legislation would destroy the economy, the cost of solar power was around $8.50. Now, it is $2.99.

If countries produce their targets too far in advance and then insist on sticking to them, they are doing so the basis of outdated technological and proving assumptions.

Or in Australia’s case, getting a leave pass to do nothing.

The Case for Planned De-Carbonisation Over Time

The fact is that gradual, planned, decarbonisation can be a great opportunity for countries like ours – especially when we have a clear direction of travel, a publicly defined carbon reduction goal, and understand the responsibility of each sector to achieve it.

First, Australia must commit in legislation to net-zero emissions by 2050, establishing a clear adaptation glide path over the next 30 years.

Second, Australia needs a carbon price as a matter of urgency. Business needs certainly. The financial sector is already voting with its feet.

Third, in the absence of a carbon price, Australia will need to achieve the same mitigation effect through regulation – in power generation, in product standards (including motor vehicles)  and energy efficiency.

Fourth, Australia cannot support an expansion of coal-fired generating capacity. Private finance will no longer support such projects. Nor shouldn’t governments approve them.

Fifth, Australia should make greater use of gas domestically to help reduce our long-term domestic reliance on coal fired power stations. Natural gas is still carbon. But it is less damaging than coal. Gas is a great bridging energy source to a carbon neutral future. Including, if necessary, for base load power stations.

Sixth, Australia should be standing at the forefront of global solar research and storage, as well as the renewable energy sector more generally.

Seven, Australia’s venture capital industry needs to back renewable energy research. If further tax incentives are necessary for this then it should be done. Superannuation funds which benefit from government policy must play a bigger role here.

Eight, Australia can also export the materials needed throughout this decarbonising transition. We have lithium reserves for batteries and other metals that are widely used in renewable generation. There is no reason why lithium batteries cannot be made here.

Nine, a national clean energy adjustment fund will need to support individuals, companies and communities to adapt to decarbonisation with new jobs and new industries.

Finally, rather than obstructing, global climate change action is also a great diplomatic opportunity for a middle power like our own. A decade ago we were leading global efforts to establish a framework to tackle climate change. Now – as I’ve said earlier – we are standing in the way of those efforts and are being ignored  by critical groups in global negotiations like the High Ambition Coalition that first formed in Paris, and even the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action that my government co-founded in the lead up to Copenhagen. In other words, the rules are being set by others, while we are no longer at the table. This is a travesty.

What we don’t realise though is that our ability to do more, both as a G20 economy and as one of the biggest emitters in the world, does in fact have an impact on whether others do more – and our ability to convince them to do more.

Leading other larger emitters to concerted global climate action is what is critical to saving our continent Australia from being ravaged by temperature increases of 4 degrees by century’s end.

Our inaction also, no matter how much we seek to implement our so-called Pacific “Step-Up”, will continue to undermine our relations in the Pacific where rising sea waters poses an existential challenge.


As Australians learnt this summer, our country has become the complacent country.

Complacent on what remains the greatest economic, environmental and moral challenge of our age.

I do not understand why the government continues to bury its head in the sand while our farmers do it tougher, the Great Barrier Reef bleaches away, and increasingly violent and unseasonal bushfires and floods take more and more innocent lives, destroy property and damage our economy.

Being the complacent country has real consequences. For our economy, our environment and our people.

It’s time, past time, for fundamental and urgent change.

These speaking notes were prepared for the speech, but varied in parts on delivery.