The ‘net’ in net zero emissions offers a huge temptation to cheat

We’ve reached the point where further addition to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will cause average temperatures to become even more uncomfortable and damaging, as well as causing more extreme weather events.

Cooking with gas – Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce.Credit:Matt Davidson

The obvious solution is to move away from burning fossil fuel and get our energy from renewable sources – sun and wind – that don’t affect temperatures and weather patterns. We don’t have to stop producing and using fossil fuels immediately, but we shouldn’t get in any deeper by building new fossil-fuel power stations, mines and oil and gas wells.

But not all emissions come from burning fossil fuels for energy. Some come from, for instance, the coking coal used to make steel, from making cement and from burping and defecating cattle and sheep.

So, some emissions may never be eliminated and others would cost far more to eliminate than to offset by other means.

The obvious way to offset is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by beefing up our natural sinks – many of which have been diminished by economic development.

The Grattan report says we can avoid further land clearing, manage our forests better and restore forest to land that’s been cleared. We can manage fires better by doing planned burning earlier in the season.

We can store more carbon in soil by changing management practices – no-till agriculture, crop rotation, stubble retention on cropping land and sowing more productive grass varieties on grazing land. We can store more carbon – “blue carbon” – by encouraging more mangroves, sea grasses and tidal marshes.

The obvious way to offset is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by beefing up our natural sinks – many of which have been diminished by economic development.

But the report warns “there is still considerable uncertainty about the costs, permanence and measurement of many offsetting activities”. For this reason, offsetting should be used as a supplement, not directly a substitute for, reducing emissions.

When governments encourage carbon removal by paying farmers and others who do it – or permit a market in which businesses required to reduce their emissions buy carbon credit certificates from others who’ve removed carbon from the atmosphere – they must ensure these transactions have “integrity”. That they’re ridgy-didge.

Grattan lists six requirements for certification: establishing a credible baseline for measuring progress; assessing how long the carbon will stay locked up; assessing whether, without payment, the activity would have happened anyway; ensuring no double-counting by people on both sides of the transaction; ensuring no adverse environmental side-effects; and requiring adequate monitoring, reporting, record-keeping and verification.

Many people fear carbon credits will be used to avoid reductions in the production of fossil fuels. And when you hear Energy Minister Angus Taylor assuring people in the coal, oil and gas industries that they “have a great future”, it makes you think such fears are warranted.

The Australia Institute recently ran a TV ad saying net zero is a fraud if the fossil fuel industries continue expanding. True.

And the sad truth is that Scott Morrison doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to using carbon credits to mislead us. He’s claimed repeatedly that our emissions are falling and we’re on track to “meet and beat” our target of a 26 per cent reduction by 2030.

In truth, emissions from the non-land sectors are continuing to grow. He’s able to say total emissions are down only because of a huge once-only reduction emissions from land clearing that occurred before the 26 per cent reduction was promised in 2015.

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Research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation has found there was a massive surge in applications to clear native forest before the NSW government imposed limits on land clearing.

Since little of this approved clearing has actually happened, the administrators of the federal Emissions Reduction Fund have counted the difference as “avoided deforestation”, even though it’s quite implausible that anything like that much land could have been cleared in the time available.

Encouraging farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere is a good idea. But there’s great scope for the unscrupulous to turn it into a fraud and another National Party rort.


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