What is Climate Integrity? | Polly Hemming

featuring Polly Hemming
Polly Hemming, Climate & Energy Program Director at the Australia Institute, delivers a speech to the Climate Integrity Summit.

To understand and define what climate integrity is, it is important to have a common understanding of what climate integrity isn’t. 

Presented at the Climate Integrity Summit, 15 February 2023.

What Climate Integrity Isn’t

In the Government’s first annual climate change statement to Parliament last year, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen said — after listing the devastating physical impacts of climate change — that to not do anything would be an “unforgivable act of intergenerational negligence”.

On the same day, the Government released its annual emissions projections which showed fugitive emissions — the emissions from extracting gas and coal — will increase between now and 2030. Increase. During this, the so-called critical decade.

This is not climate integrity.

Just months after winning the election on a platform of climate ambition, and then enshrining a more ambitious climate target in law, the Australian Government committed $1.9 billion to a gas processing plant in the Northern Territory.  The same amount of money it has committed to the entire fund dedicated to decarbonising our regions.

This is not climate integrity.

The Government’s Safeguard Mechanism — notionally designed to tackle Australia’s ballooning emissions from mining and industry — does nothing to stop new gas and coal projects from going ahead. It will allow the fossil fuel industry to increase its emissions as long as it buys some carbon offsets. Think about that. This is Australia’s key climate policy, and it protects and legitimises the number one thing making climate change worse – fossil fuel expansion.

This is not climate integrity.

Australia’s climate policies have been and still are characterised by conflicts of interest, regulatory capture, misleading accounting and expanding gas and coal production.

Under the previous government there were 114 new gas and coal projects in development. The emissions from which would result in about 1.7 billion tonnes of co2 every year — twice as much as global aviation. This number has now jumped to 117.

Polly Hemming at the Climate Integrity Summit.

Yes this government has inherited a decade of delay, but it is because of this decade of delay that we look to them with such hope and desperation now.

Yet at a time when we can and should be doing everything — literally everything — in our power to cut our emissions and to use our wealth and creativity to help our neighbours, the Australian Government is not providing regulation or incentives that result in the absolute reductions in emissions the science says is so desperately needed. It appears to be greenwashing its ambitious climate rhetoric by supplying millions and millions of carbon offsets that fossil fuel companies can use to say they are ‘net zero’.

Relying on offsets from the land sector instead of actually decarbonising our economy is a problem in and of itself — but it’s made even worse by the fact that most of these carbon offsets are junk. The Government knows this, which is why it rushed through a review of Australia’s carbon credits — a box ticking exercise more than a review.

The review panel did not examine a single piece of satellite imagery or project data before it came to the conclusion that there were no problems.

In the meantime, Minister Bowen himself was encouraging participation in the market while the review was taking place, and the government was drafting Safeguard Legislation that explicitly assumed that the review would give Australia’s carbon credits the all-clear.

Australia is on the precipice of something that could be magnificent. We finally have the opportunity to change the course of the last ten years. We have a new climate target enshrined in law. We also have new funds and programs that could genuinely drive public and private investment in the actual decarbonisation of our economy. The community appetite for action is greater than ever before.

In his address to parliament Minister Bowen said, on behalf of the government, “how we have begun is how we intend to continue.” I sincerely hope that is not the case. Because rather than take the leap away from the past and towards the ambitious transformation needed, it seems the government has begun paralysed by fear of the fossil fuel industry. Just like every government before it. This is not climate integrity. Integrity requires courage.

The risk is that to avoid the political costs that come with genuine decarbonisation the government intends to continue using the policy architecture set up by the previous government, including the Safeguard Mechanism, offsets and creative accounting.

I agree with Minister Bowen. Unless something changes dramatically this is an unforgivable act of intergenerational negligence. Closer to home, it is also a betrayal of the people who voted for climate action in 2022.

Climate integrity is the antidote to Australia’s state-sponsored greenwash

Climate integrity is not confined to government although that’s where it starts. Climate integrity is the lens through which we must view climate claims, whether they are made by government or industry.

Currently, in the absence of regulation, clear reporting frameworks and adequate consumer laws the onus has been placed on us as citizens, consumers, voters, journalists, and academics to spot greenwashing by business and government.

Australia’s biggest polluters have set net zero targets while telling shareholders their fossil fuel production is increasing. We have been given the exhausting and impossible task of deciphering whether the claims made by industry, banks and governments are consistent with their actions.

This shift in responsibility is no accident, it is a strategy. In Australia and elsewhere greenwashing serves the interests of both the private sector and government. Big emitters make net zero pledges to prolong the viability of their existing business models. Similarly, when impossible claims like being a ‘net zero’ gas company or selling ‘carbon neutral’ petrol are made, the government can delay a conversation about phasing out internal combustion engines or fossil fuel exports.

And these are real examples. The Australian Government has its own carbon neutral certification scheme — Climate Active — that endorses and celebrates these claims. Fossil fuel companies and retailers AGL, Energy Australia, Ampol, Origin Energy and Telstra (which is now an energy retailer) are all celebrated as carbon neutral and literally described as ‘progressive climate leaders’. This is not climate integrity.

From ‘Ampol Carbon Neutral’ Video on YouTube.

Polling by The Australia Institute shows that an overwhelming majority of us (85%) have heard the term carbon neutral, but just thirty per cent of Australians say they know what it means. Over 30 percent of Australians say that coal fired electricity that has been offset has the same impact as 100% renewable energy and that there would be less need for electric vehicles if all petrol was carbon neutral.

These figures show that it is unreasonable to expect consumers and voters to know whether a carbon neutral claim is legitimate. It is also impossible for businesses acting in good faith to know whether they are doing the right thing.

It should not be up to any of us to put out the constant spot fires of greenwash. Climate integrity puts the onus back on government and business to prove that their climate claims are legitimate. Whether you are government or business… until you can prove to have climate integrity, sadly we must assume you don’t. There have been too many fraudulent claims for us to be able to trust what we are told.

The Principles of Climate Integrity

The principles of climate integrity are simple. Indeed – while there is no hierarchy to these principles the first principle is simplicity itself.

1. Simplicity

My son is 7 years old. He knows that the two fundamental things that need to happen to address climate change are to ‘stop burning fossil fuels’ and to ‘stop breaking habitats’ – which I interpret as stop clearing land.

My kids are interested in climate change, but I don’t evangelise at them. They inherently know, that to credibly address climate change, these things need to happen first and foremost because it is obvious.

If I asked my son how to save trees his response would not be “Mum, what about creating a complex market-based mechanism based on an unprovable counterfactual”.

His response would be: “Mum if you want to save trees…don’t let people cut down trees”.

In Australia, we have been led to believe that climate policy must be complex. In fact, there is evidence that the human brain is geared toward complexity bias. We actively prefer complicated solutions and explanations over simple ones whether we understand them or not.

So much is hidden in complexity. A key feature of the government’s safeguard mechanism is that it is incredibly technocratic and complicated. We assume that if we don’t understand it must be important. This is a design feature, not an accident.

I am not saying good climate policy is easy, but it is simple. We need to stop doing the harmful things and we need to invest in the good things.

2. Science-based

The conclusions of climate scientists are unambiguous—the world needs to rapidly reduce the actual amount of greenhouse gasses being released into the atmosphere. I can’t believe I’m saying this in 2023.

I cannot be any clearer. A climate policy that allows fossil fuel expansion is not based in science. The argument that climate policy must be pragmatic of course has some merit but it’s an argument that has been weaponised to justify delay.

The science calls for absolute reductions. It does not call for creative baselines, for a reduction in emissions intensity per tonne of coal produced, or for taking some reductions from one column in a spreadsheet and moving them to offset increases in another.

Carbon offsets may have a small role to play in Australia’s climate policy. But it must be acknowledged that it comes at the expense of genuine decarbonisation and that when they’re used in bad faith offsets result in an increase in emissions.

A majority of Australia’s carbon credits come from the land sector. Of course we should help farmers store more carbon in their soil. Of course we should protect and restore ecosystems. Of course we should fund Indigenous communities to manage their country. But the idea that we can infinitely store geological carbon in trees and soil is not just unscientific. It is nonsense.

3. Independent

It is not enough to be science based. The science must be independent and used with integrity. Climate policy in Australia has been subverted so industry sets the climate standards it wants from the government not the other way around. “Science” is manipulated and distorted by industry interests and then regurgitated on the websites of government agencies.

This is evident in the activities of the Australian Government’s Clean Energy Regulator — the nominally independent agency developing and overseeing Australia’s carbon offsets, that also happens to be a paying member of Australia’s carbon offset industry lobby. The CER consults with both the fossil fuel and carbon developers when developing the “scientific” methods that generate carbon offsets. Though the lines between these groups are blurred as the largest carbon offset developers and aggregators in Australia all seem to have links to the gas and resources industry.

The Clean Energy Regulator has also been shown to have tried to influence and suppress science showing the manifest flaws in Australia’s carbon offsets.

None of this fits the legal definition of corruption, but our processes have been corrupted. Australia’s carbon offset scheme is not underpinned by independent science.

Of course, if we were allowed to see the data for ourselves then we could see whether our policies truly were based in science or not and whether that science had been used in good faith, which brings me to the next principle of climate integrity.

4. Transparent

Government and industry have refused to release the data that would show unequivocally what is actually happening on every one of Australia’s carbon offset projects. They don’t even release national satellite data of Australia’s deforestation. Claims of ‘commercial in confidence’ and ‘cabinet in confidence’ are the government’s defence against independent scrutiny.

At an industry level, currently there is no overarching government framework that requires industry to disclose its greenhouse gas emissions comprehensively and transparently, which allows the authors of corporate sustainability reports to cherry-pick the data they reveal, putting the onus on us to decode it.

There is a direct relationship between transparency and corruption. The Robodebt inquiry makes clear that public servants routinely conceal crucial information. As does industry. A whistle-blower revealed last year that the coal industry has been making fraudulent claims about coal quality for years.

Climate integrity is having nothing to hide, at any level.

5. Government-driven

Of course, it is reasonable to expect that industry will always game the system. This isn’t a criticism, it’s the nature of the beast according to economic theory. Milton Friedman, the free-market advocate, said it best: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. This means that even those companies acting in good faith are likely to only do the bare minimum required of them.

For this reason, the next principle is that climate policy must be driven by government. Nicholas Stern told us that climate change was the biggest case of market failure in history. Markets cannot solve market failure. It is the role of government to set boundaries and provide incentives, and it is the role of the private sector to respond.

Ultimately it is the ambition of government that will determine the ambition of industry.

6. Conservative

Climate policy must be conservative. If we are to tackle climate change, we need to be honest with ourselves, and each other, about the size of the task and the scale of our willingness to act.

The climate claims of government and industry are overinflated at best and manifestly false at worst. Woodside says “our natural gas can help reduce global emissions”. Telstra says it is “passionate about tackling climate change now and in the future”. Energy Australia says it is “Helping fight climate change”. Minister Bowen has said “Our Government has hit the ground the running with a strong agenda of climate action.”

But Australia’s fossil fuel emissions are still rising and there are 117 new gas and coal projects in the pipeline. A lack of humility not only undermines trust, it is dangerous. Climate policy must be conservative. It must be risk-averse. We don’t get a second chance with this.

The Australian government confidently reports on the emissions from open cut coal mines without really knowing how much fugitive methane is being released.

It boasts that Australia has so many trees that we can comfortably keep emitting in other sectors of the economy. Every tonne of greenhouse gas counts. All it will take is another black summer or the realisation that someone has gotten an equation wrong for our emissions accounts to look vastly different.

Philosophically when we think of integrity, we think of it as having honour or a moral purpose. When we apply the term to concepts or objects, integrity refers to being, uncontaminated, or structurally intact, or pure.

Climate integrity, at its core, incorporates both of these interpretations. Minister Bowen said in his address to parliament that we have to be a “good international citizen”. Going beyond the moral imperative, our policy must also be robust, grounded in truth and uncorrupted in all senses of the word.

Moving forward, Australia must have humility. We must acknowledge our slow progress on climate. We must release the grip industry has on our democracy and hold corporate interests to account.

And of course, we must stop approving new gas and coal projects. Everything else will flow from there.

This is climate integrity.

— Polly Hemming, Climate and Energy Program Director at the Australia Institute. Delivered at the Climate Integrity Summit, 15 February 2023.

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