Australia’s greenhouse gas targets: what are they and are we on track?

Greenhouse gas targets are specific goals set by countries to reduce the emissions of gases that contribute to global warming. These targets are usually expressed as a percentage reduction from a baseline year's emissions.

What are Australia's emissions reduction targets?

Australia has two emissions targets. One is focused on hitting a target in a particular year. The other is focused on a budget across several years.

Target #1 (single-year target): By 2030, national net emissions will be 43% below 2005 levels. This equals 353.3 Mt CO2-e (Million Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent).

Target #2 (multi-year budget): Between 2021-2030, Australia’s emissions budget is 4,353 Mt CO2-e. An emissions budget is the total amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions permitted over a period of time to keep within a certain temperature threshold.

The path to 2050: The 2030 targets are milestones on the path to Australia's bigger picture target. This is by 2050, Australia will release Net 0 CO2-e.

What does ‘Net’ mean in Net Zero?

Net Zero refers to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and the amount removed from it. It recognises that some emissions may be unavoidable and thus must be offset by removing an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere through natural or technological means.

Net emissions = those put into the atmosphere minus emissions removed from the atmosphere (either by nature or human intervention). Gross emissions = total emissions put into the atmosphere.

The only sector where both emissions and removals of carbon dioxide occur is Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry.

Why is 2005 the baseline year?

A baseline year is a reference point in time against which emission reductions in the future are measured. 2005 was a high-water mark for Australia’s emissions.

Who sets the targets?

Emissions targets are not arbitrary. They're based on scientific research, including assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC models various scenarios for emissions reductions to achieve specific climate goals. This includes a global emissions budget of 1,700 Gigatonnes of CO₂-e for the period 2000–2050. Australia’s emissions budget is based on a ‘fair share’ of this, as recommended by Australia’s Climate Change Authority.

Why are 2030 and 2050 the target years?

2050 target: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a target agreed upon in the Paris Agreement—global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions need to reach net zero by around 2050 in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This is considered a long-term timeframe that allows for the development and scaling up of new technologies, and economic and social transition.

2030 target: This serves as a near-term benchmark, encouraging countries to take immediate and significant actions to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Setting a target that is relatively close in the future allows for more concrete planning and implementation of policies. It also provides a timeline short enough to hold current governments and businesses accountable for their actions and commitments.

Are we on track?

Government projections suggest Australia is on track. However, these are based on assumptions and modelling relating to predicted changes. If nothing changes and Australia's emissions continue at the current rate, Australia will miss its target.

What happens if we miss the target?

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), does not impose strict penalties for countries that fail to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) or emissions targets. Instead, it relies on a 'name and shame' system, where countries are expected to submit their emission reduction targets and progress reports for review. 

Get your weekly briefing

Sign up to get the free climate data briefing in your inbox every week.