Ahead of COP26, Australia’s federal government has set a target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. ClimateWorks CEO Anna Skarbek breaks down what this means, as the world raises ambition and seeks to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The Federal Government’s net zero by 2050 target was announced by the Prime Minister today, and covers emissions across the Australian economy. 

‘The Australian government’s net zero emissions reduction commitment fills a major gap and has been long anticipated,’ says ClimateWorks CEO Anna Skarbek. ‘Importantly, it improves the opportunity for investment and policy to galvanise and start to solve for it.’ 

Net zero by or before 2050 is already the target for all of Australia’s states and territories and is the commitment of national governments in all G7 nations. China has a net zero by 2060 target, as does Indonesia. ‘And so now, net zero emissions by mid-century is the national target for 14 of Australia’s largest 20 trading partners – which covers 83 per cent of exports,’ Ms Skarbek said. 

‘The confirmation of a federal commitment to net zero emissions, while overdue, is important. Net zero emissions is the only way to secure a safe climate. A national target for this gives all agencies the chance to work backwards from the same endpoint, and collaborate to drive down emissions.

‘Now is the time for everyone to make their net zero plans. This is true for companies as well as governments and also for regions and sectors. Working together to co-develop net zero roadmaps can help attract the funding and actions at scale to get the job done.’

Modelling shows deeper cuts and faster action are possible by 2050

ClimateWorks Decarbonisation Futures analysis shows that Australia can reduce emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 for action in line with a 1.5 degree scenario, and 50 per cent under 2 degree scenarios. 

The benchmarks and net zero pathways in this modelling, with the CSIRO, shows Australia can decarbonise by 2035. 

‘It does require everyone to act – urgently and at scale. This means rolling out known technologies and other solutions that will drive emissions down immediately across the Australian economy,’ said Ms Skarbek.  

‘Not only does our work show the federal government has plenty of room to increase ambition but can capitalise on the existing commitments from states and territories, which would already achieve 2030 reductions of 37-42 per cent – well above Australia’s existing target, and still below what’s needed to achieve the Paris agreement goals.’

Decarbonisation Futures found that innovation was vital, as was research and development (R&D) and accelerated deployment, and that Australia can chart a 1.5 degree compatible path with an ‘all-in’ effort from all governments, businesses and individuals.

‘Where we see coordinated efforts around the world that involve government policy, individual action, and investment by the private sector and others in technology innovation and R&D – we’re seeing momentous things happen. 

‘You just need to look at renewable energy – now cheaper than fossil fuels and that’s not even taking into account the environmental and health benefits they deliver. Cost reduction and market take-up can happen more quickly and at a greater scale than is often expected. 

‘Part of setting up Australia for net zero means our long-lived assets being built with a net zero emissions future in mind. A good example of this is the Australian Energy Market Operator’s plans for 100 per cent instantaneous renewable energy by 2025, including 1.5 degrees net zero scenarios in its longer term planning.’  

The bar for climate action has already risen

Ms Skarbek said while it’s important Australia has this net zero target, at COP26 in Glasgow, ClimateWorks expected to see increased focus on immediate action and on limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – which means stronger cuts to emissions this decade. 

She said the Paris Agreement, which was negotiated in 2015, established the requirement for the net zero concept and the first pledges of 2030 targets. 

‘It’s important to note, the Paris Agreement is a ratchet-up model. Globally, there is action well beyond setting targets, and the expectation is that countries will continuously improve and incrementally increase their ambition over time.’ 

She said for major developed economies, like Australia’s, expectations for climate ambition have already risen, and the focus is now on global halving of emissions, and how these countries will act to achieve this by the end of the decade. 

‘We have seen a big step-up in the 2030 targets heading for the global benchmark of at least halving emissions this decade. Canada previously had a 2030 target similar to the 26-28 per cent cut of Australia, and has increased this to 40-45 per cent now. The US and Japan have 50 per cent targets for 2030 and the EU and UK are more ambitious again. 1.5 degrees is also the focus of the world’s largest institutional investors.

‘Decarbonising Australia’s economy will be essential to remain a prosperous, export-oriented country now trading partners have set net zero goals.’ 

Prior to the Paris Agreement being struck in 2015, ClimateWorks together with CSIRO and the Australian National University set out pathways to deep decarbonisation for Australia. 

‘We found in 2014 that Australia could achieve emissions reductions of 50 per cent by 2030. Our more recent modelling shows much more is possible within reach this decade.’

Ms Skarbek said the forthcoming climate talks are a useful reminder to think in five-yearly blocks. 

‘In the five years between Paris and Glasgow, we have seen net zero by 2050 become the target of most governments and become accepted by most mainstream business groups. And now we are seeing the focus turn to halving emissions by 2030 and many countries have adjusted for this, and raised their ambition. 

‘Also there is now a shift to 1.5 degrees becoming the new benchmark for global action, rather than “well below 2 degrees”, which would mean a net zero by 2035 target for Australia. This will likely become the mainstream expectation in the next five years.’

Media enquiries:
Kulja Coulston | + 61 405 767 256 | kulja.coulston@climateworksaustralia.org 

All words in quotes attributable to Anna Skarbek, CEO ClimateWorks Australia