By Brendan Dobbie, Sean Ryan, Rachel Walmsley

As 2020 draws to a close with heatwaves and the bushfire season upon us once more, it is timely to reflect on the climate law reform progress that we have seen this year, and to be clear on what is needed when parliaments resume in the new year. EDO has continued to recommend climate law reform for NSW, Queensland, and the Northern Territory, and provided expert analysis on Western Australian climate policy. Momentum is building, with multi-party support for legislation facilitating investment in renewable energy in NSW, relinquishment of using carry-over Kyoto credits to meet Australia’s current commitments, and a private members’ bill proposed for a framework Climate Change Act at the national level.

A fundamentally important issue for climate law reform is setting effective and binding emissions reduction targets in legislation. This update examines this critical challenge and explores what targets we urgently need and why; and how to do this in law.

What targets do we need and why?

Many jurisdictions are committing to a long-term target of Net-Zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 and adopting various approaches to implementing short and medium term targets to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement, including by setting interim ‘emissions budgets’. It is important to consider the long-term target and the mechanisms for achieving it in more detail.

While it is important, on its own, a Net-Zero by 2050 target does not regulate how many GHGs can be emitted before 2050, or the rate at which emissions must decline, in order to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement of limiting global temperature to increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. In this regard, it is the volume of emissions that are permitted to be released before 2050, and the rate at which emissions decline, that will determine the ultimate level of global warming that Australia will have to endure. For example, if emissions are permitted to continue at high levels for too long into the future, the corresponding rate and depth of emissions reductions required to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement will become impossible to achieve (both technologically and economically). The Net-Zero by 2050 target must therefore function in the context of meeting a carbon budget corresponding to a level of global warming of 1.5°C or well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Therefore, mechanisms in climate legislation for emissions budgets and interim and long-term targets should clearly link to a temperature outcome corresponding to the goal of the Paris Agreement.

The Climate Change Authority calculated that to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Australia needs a 45%-65% reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.[i] Accordingly, based on the Climate Change Authority’s calculations, to avoid exceeding 2°C of global warming and exposing Australians to the most dangerous effects of climate change, an emissions budget for the period starting 1 January 2022[ii] and ending 30 December 2030 would need to have a legislated interim target of a reduction of 45% to 65% in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.

However, we note that this calculation does not accord with the goal of the Paris Agreement, which requires warming to be limited to between 1.5°C to well below 2°C. Therefore a more ambitious interim target is required. The more time that passes before we take significant action, the stricter the reduction targets must be if we are to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement.[iii]

The stark differences, in terms of climate change risks and impacts, between a 1.5 oC warming scenario and a 2oC warming scenario were highlighted in the IPCC’s Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5 oC (SR15).[iv] SR15 states that in order to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, global temperature increase must be limited to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

SR15 provides clear examples of the differences in the predicted impacts of global warming at 1.5oC as opposed to 2oC, including:[v]

  • High confidence that aggregate climate-related risks are larger if global warming exceeds 1.5oC.
  • High confidence that limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to:
    • Lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans.
    • Reduce increases in ocean temperature as well as associated increases in ocean acidity and decreases in ocean oxygen levels.
    • Reduce risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries, and ecosystems, and their functions and services to humans.
  • High confidence that the projected decline in coral reefs will be larger at 2°C (>99% losses) than at 1.5°C (70–90% losses).
  • The projected likelihood of a sea-ice free Artic summer is increased from one per century at 1.5°C of global warming to one per decade at 2°C.
  • Medium confidence that limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, may:
    • Reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.
    • Reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate change-induced increase in water stress by up to 50%.[vi]
  • High confidence that most adaptation needs will be lower for global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C, and medium confidence that limits to adaptive capacity for vulnerable regions, ecosystems and human health will become more pronounced at warming higher than 1.5°C.[vii]

The actual difference between a 1.5°C and a 2°C scenario is a matter of survival for many vulnerable communities including in the Torres Strait Islands and Pacific States, who are already suffering climate harm at the current rate of 1.1 warming.

EDO strongly supports the adoption of binding emissions reduction targets in legislation, but we note that the current science is clear that ambitious interim targets are required in the short-term to ensure that we immediately embark upon an emissions reduction trajectory that is feasible and sufficient to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement.

A clear and ambitious 2030 target is necessary to ensure a net-zero by 2050 target aligned with the Paris Agreement temperature goals is possible to meet. EDO is of the strong view that Australia should make every effort to meet the 1.5°C goal, which, as set out in the IPCC’s SR15,[viii] is necessary to avoid the most significant impacts of climate change. Therefore, it is imperative that a sufficiently ambitious and binding 2030 target is imposed as soon as possible to require Australia to take immediate action to deeply reduce its GHG emissions.

How do we embed effective targets in law?

EDO explored the issue of legislating quantifiable and ambitious short and medium-term emissions reductions targets in a recent submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020; and Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2020.

Effective targets must be supported by key mechanisms in law that mandate a whole-of-government approach to both climate change mitigation and adaptation, in a clear and coordinated way. Overarching climate change legislation should therefore include the following elements:

  • Objects: set a clear overarching objective to reduce GHG emissions and make decisions consistent with limiting the increase in global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The objects should also refer to planning for a rapid and just transition (including supporting workers to transition) away from fossil fuel production and use, consistent with Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advice, and establishing a whole-of-government approach to addressing climate change impacts;
  • Targets: impose duties on Government Minister/s to set periodic and long-term emissions reduction targets and carbon budgets and a legislated renewable energy target for electricity use, based on expert advice consistent with internationally agreed climate goals, best available science, and the principles of ecologically sustainable development;
  • Independent expert advice: formalise a skills-based independent statutory Climate Change Advisory Council to advise the Government and the Parliament based on the best available science for climate mitigation, and assess and report on progress in relation to meeting targets and implementing adaptation plans, and require decision makers to act consistently with this advice;
  • Duties: create a duty on Ministers and relevant decision makers to make decisions consistent with relevant climate change legislative objects and targets when exercising prescribed functions, particularly in relation to planning functions;
  • Risk assessment: adopt a high-level process for a national climate risk assessment, and require specific policies and initiatives for sectors identified at high risk from climate change impacts (e.g. housing, infrastructure, agriculture, energy, insurance, tourism, health);
  • Adaptation Plans: require a national Adaptation Plan to be made, published, and periodically reviewed by the Minister on advice from the Climate Change Advisory Council. Sectoral and regional adaptation plans should also be made consistent with the national adaptation plan;
  • Monitoring progress: Develop national indicators, including for emissions reduction in line with set targets, adaptation planning and climate readiness of legislation; and regularly report against those indicators; and
  • Governance: Allocate Ministerial responsibility specifically for climate change, and create a Climate Change Division in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that administers an overarching Climate Change Act (assisted by advice from an independent Climate Change Advisory Council) and supports interagency collaboration on emissions reduction and adaptation.

Our Inquiry submission specifically identified and analysed the following critical issues for climate legislation including:

  • Objects and guiding principles;
    • Mechanism to transition Australia’s economy away from fossil fuel use and production and towards clean energy and low-emissions technology;
    • Mechanism to transition Australia’s economy away from fossil fuel exports to zero emissions energy exports by 2050;
    • The need for mandatory financial reporting of climate change risks;
    • Emissions Budgets and Emissions Reduction Plans – relevant considerations, amendment, and transparency should only occur in limited;
    • Duties on decision-makers to ensure that Emissions Budgets and Target are met;
    • Independent expert advice: Climate Change Commission – transparency, independence and membership; and
    • Framework to establish greater coordination and consistency between the policies of Australia’s climate change and emissions bodies.

Read our submission here.

Multi-party support for these measures is critical to ensure a just and rapid transition to clean energy, productive livelihoods, and a safe and stable climate in which humanity and other species can flourish.

The EDO Safe Climate team will continue advocating for this urgently needed law reform across Australia in 2021.


[i] Climate Change Authority (CCA) 2015, Final Report on Australia’s Future Emissions Reduction Targets. Available at:
[ii] For example, as proposed in the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020.
[iii] For example, Professor Will Steffen has calculated that a global reduction of emissions by 50% by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2040 is needed to limit global warming to 1.8 degrees (well-below 2 degrees), from a 2018 emissions baseline – Prof Will Steffen, Expert Report to NSW Independent Planning Commission, Public Hearing – Vickery Extension Project, 30 June 2020 (at parr [9]-[11])
[iv] Available at
[v] SR15, p.5.
[vi] Ibid, p.10.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] See: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC — (