Opinion pieces


August 27, 2019

Focusing on scope-3 emissions distracts from the main game: ensuring Australia meets its domestic obligations.

Holding Australia responsible for the burning of exported coal is equivalent to holding Japan responsible for the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted by cars in Australia.

It is a ridiculous position that betrays a misunderstanding of the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) and the history of climate change negotiations.

More importantly it distracts from the main game: making sure Australia meets its legal obligations to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

The vast majority of thermal coal mined around the world is burned in the same country that produces it.

Australia’s entire thermal coal output in 2017 was equivalent to just one year’s growth in global production.

So what, you might say – Australia has a moral responsibility not to export coal.

In fact, the moral – and legal – responsibility for the emissions lies with the nation that burns the coal, not the nation that supplies the coal.

This was determined at the earliest climate change negotiations for very good practical reasons.

Activists who want to hold Australia responsible for emissions from coal burned overseas, so-called scope-3 emissions, are arguing for the destruction of global climate conventions established 27 years ago.

As someone who participated in UN negotiations under the last Labor government, I can state categorically that this would be a massive setback to international efforts to tackle climate change.

It would mire the world in years of unproductive wrangling about a new set of international conventions instead of getting on with the urgent business of cutting emissions.

Interestingly, it’s an approach which is also being pursued by the energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, when he argues that Australia should receive credit for emissions reductions when Australian LNG exports displace coal overseas. If this approach is adopted, it would lead to a massive emissions liability for Australia, given the 387 million tonnes of thermal and coking coal we exported last year.

To understand the perverse impacts of the scope-3 argument, consider Australia’s transport sector.

Motor vehicles emitted 101 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in Australia last year – nearly 19% of our total emissions.

Under the scope-3 approach, responsibility for these emissions would be shifted from Australia to Japan, Germany and Thailand because their car manufacturers export the vehicles.

Not only is this ridiculous – it would give a leave pass to the Australian government, which is already refusing to tackle transport emissions.

Then there are the emissions produced when industries like manufacturing, mining and construction burn fuels such as oil and petroleum – these make up another 19% of Australia’s emissions.

Given that a large share of these fuels is imported, responsibility for those emissions would be shifted from Australia to oil and petroleum exporters like Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

People arguing for no new Australian coalmines on the basis of scope-3 emissions want to make this the sole test of a political party’s commitment to climate action.

The real tests are:

  • Is the party committed to reducing Australia’s emissions consistent with the Paris agreement?
  • Does it have concrete policies to deliver these reductions?
  • Has it ruled out using Kyoto carry-over units to water down Australia’s emissions reductions?

Labor took policies to this year’s election to reduce Australia’s emissions by 45% below 2000 levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. These are the levels scientists have advised are needed to meet the Paris goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees. Labor also ruled out using Kyoto units.

In contrast, the Morrison government’s target is to reduce emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030. It has no pathway to net zero emissions. It will use Kyoto accounting tricks to water down its already inadequate target. And it has no policies for actually delivering on its target.

Suggesting that Labor is no different from the Liberals on climate is not only wrong, it supports the election of governments that are demonstrably doing far less to reduce emissions.

In campaigning on coal exports, activists are behaving as if we have already secured strong emissions reduction mechanisms in Australia. Unfortunately, proponents of the scope-3 argument on coal are making it harder to build the community support needed to achieve meaningful action.

There is no doubt the world must reduce the use of fossil fuels, absent carbon capture and storage actually working, if we are to limit global warming.

The greatest impact Australia can have with international customers is not to refuse to supply coal but to show we are taking domestic action and commit to helping those nations reduce their own emissions.

The true progressive position on climate means doing the hard political and policy work needed to reduce emissions, not indulging in unnecessary and counter-productive demands to hold Australia responsible for the burning of exported coal.


This opinion piece was first published in GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA on Tuesday, 27 August 2019