Targeting fairness: Victoria’s emissions reduction target


Numbers, stats and percentages.

This is how we’re used to getting information about the world: in quantifiable blocks.

Sometimes though, the figures that float around the most contested subjects become so well-circulated that they risk being leached of meaning.

Figures like 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of global warming.

And emissions reduction targets: 28 per cent; 45 per cent; 75 per cent.

These numbers are in particularly heavy circulation at the moment because the Victorian Government is in the process of setting its emissions reduction target for 2035, and is taking input through an Independent Expert Panel.

VCOSS made a submission to the panel, which is empowered to consider the “likely impact of the target on the health and wellbeing of Victorians”.

But getting a clear sense of the health and wellbeing implications of an emissions target – the number at which it’s set and, just as importantly, the plan for how to reach it – requires seeing the figures and percentages for what they really mean.

For the most vulnerable Victorians, in the starkest terms, these numbers can translate into death sentences.

For instance, we know that heatwaves will increase as temperatures warm.

In the pre-industrial era there used to be severe heatwaves in Australia – the kind that killed 167 Victorians in 2014 – every 50 years or so.

An emissions target that corresponds to a temperature increase of 2 degrees will mean we can expect such a deadly heatwave every 3.6 years.

Bushfires, storms, droughts and floods also become more widespread and more severe with every fraction of a degree of warming.

And these impacts hit vulnerable people the hardest: people forced by economic necessity to live in urban heat islands and bushfire risk zones, in areas prone to devastating floods, in baking homes without air conditioning or without the money to run it.

When the expert panel considers the health and wellbeing impacts of emissions targets, the headline fact in their sights should be that the Victorian Government’s current target for 2030 – 45–50 per cent – puts us on a path towards 2 degrees of warming, and all the devastating impacts this will mean.

To limit warming to 1.5 degrees – and correspondingly limit human suffering – we need a target of 75 per cent emissions reduction for 2030, not 45–50 per cent.

And we need to hit net zero emissions by 2035, not 2050.

Of course, the outcomes predicted in these trajectories are predicated on levels of global warming, to which Victorian emissions are just one small contributor.

This shouldn’t be an argument against taking action: only setting and achieving responsible targets in all jurisdictions will ward off the worst impacts of climate change and protect vulnerable people everywhere.

But if we need an entirely local argument for setting ambitious emissions reduction targets in Victoria, we can find one in the health, economic and general wellbeing benefits that can flow from an equitable transition to a net zero carbon economy.

That’s because the same people most at risk from the impacts of climate change are the ones who stand to benefit most from better, cleaner, more sustainable technologies.

Improved thermal comfort from upgrading the energy efficiency of Victorian homes can save low-income Victorians money, suffering and even their lives: research has shown that if all Victorian homes had an energy efficiency rating of 5.4 NatHERS Stars, rather than the current average of 1.8, the vast majority of people who died in the 2009 heatwave could have survived.

Electrifying households and giving them access to new emissions-reducing technologies will ease cost-of-living pressures that are currently hitting low-income households hard. For instance, households that take up the Solar Homes rebate to instal solar panels save over $1,000 on average each year on energy bills.

And Victorians experiencing compounded disadvantages have the most to gain – such as low-income Victorians with disabilities and chronic health conditions, who are more susceptible to the health impacts of extreme heat and cold.

Cutting back on air pollution by transitioning to clean renewable energy would also offer most benefit to vulnerable Victorians, including those in the air pollution ‘hot spots’ of the Latrobe Valley in Gippsland and Yarraville and Brooklyn in western Melbourne.

Transitioning to a net zero carbon economy is not an easy prospect. But Climateworks’ Decarbonisation Futures report shows that keeping to 1.5 degrees of warming is feasible in Australia if governments immediately deploy demonstrated zero-emissions technologies and rapidly develop emerging innovations.

And the IPCC has shown that the economic benefits of limiting warming outweigh the costs, while taking early action is cheaper in the long run.

To limit warming to 1.5 degrees – and correspondingly limit human suffering – we need a target of 75 per cent emissions reduction for 2030, not 45–50 per cent.

Doing it fairly – so that the health and wellbeing benefits are felt across the board and particularly by people who need them most – is also challenging.

Overcoming inequity in the transition has so far proved elusive. For instance, financially comfortable households are currently more than twice as likely to have rooftop solar panels as those under financial pressure, and homeowners are five times more likely than renters.

But this can change.

Cutting emissions with an equity lens is possible, through programs that are:

  • targeted at households who would benefit the most;
  • fully subsidised or combined with no-interest loans for households who can’t afford upfront costs;
  • designed to benefit all types of households including renters and those in public and community housing; and
  • measured and monitored to ensure uptake isn’t skewed towards affluent households and homeowners.

The initiatives that can be of most equitable benefit for a low-carbon Victoria are:

  • Upgrading residential energy efficiency, by funding a state-wide trajectory to a rating equivalent to  6 NatHERS Stars for all homes.
  • Equitably electrifying homes, with low-income households and private and social renters prioritised.
  • Ensuring all households can access solar energy, via a combination of solar panels and batteries. This can include programs such as community energy hubs for apartment buildings, and rooftop solar panels on all public housing.
  • Supporting the community sector to decarbonise.
  • Expanding public and active transport options.

There also needs to be a focus on a just transition in areas dependent on fossil fuel industries, like the Latrobe Valley.

Long-term investment in these communities can cushion the economic impacts of the transition and give communities hope for a thriving future. Programs should be co-designed with the communities they affect, and should include a focus on employment opportunities in the healthcare and social services sector, which is the Latrobe Valley’s biggest and fastest-growing employer.

Creating a liveable Victoria now and for future generations relies very much on the policy decisions of the next 10–15 years.

It’s a moment of unprecedented challenge and also unprecedented opportunity.

The Victorian Government can rise to the challenge by setting bold emissions reduction targets.

And through equitable strategies to reach those targets we can grasp the opportunity for a fair society: one where everyone has a shot at good health and wellbeing, and no one is handed a death sentence by numbers.

Read VCOSS’s submission on Victoria’s emissions reduction target for 2035 here.

VCOSS is the peak body for Victoria’s social and community sector, and the state’s premier social advocacy body.

We work towards a Victoria free from poverty and disadvantage, where every person and community experiences genuine wellbeing. Read more.

VCOSS acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country, and we pay respect to Elders and Ancestors. Our business is conducted on sovereign, unceded Aboriginal land. The VCOSS offices are located on Wurundjeri Woiwurrung land in central Naarm.