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WA government concedes 'hurdle is high' as it prepares to legislate 2050 net zero carbon emissions target

The WA government has announced plans to enshrine its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in law, but will not set targets to get there until at least the end of the year.

The McGowan government had already committed to reducing public sector emissions by 80 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels, and to become net zero by 2050, but these new goals will apply to the entire economy.

Environment Minister Reece Whitby said the "important" legislation, which he expected to go before parliament later this year, would send a clear message to businesses and the community about what was expected.

"It provides clarity and certainty to the business community that this is the journey so you need to come with us, you need to make that investment," he told ABC Radio Perth.

"When you send a very clear signal to the community and industry alike that this is the way forward, you're going to stimulate investment in new technologies, new infrastructure, and that in turn will result in economies of scale."

Similar legislation was passed by the federal parliament in September, although those laws included a target to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by 2030.

'The hurdle is high' for mining state

Mr Whitby acknowledged "the hurdle is high" for WA, given its heavy reliance on high-emitting industries like mining, resources and agriculture.

It means WA is the state with the most work to do to reduce its emissions, having increased its greenhouse gas output by four per cent compared to 2005 levels, at the same time every other state has made reductions of at least 18 per cent.

The state will be helped along by all of the government's coal fired power plants closing by 2030, but the minister was confident the entire economy would pull its weight.

"Most large businesses, most large emitters, have already made the commitment to net zero, virtually all of them have," Mr Whitby said.

"Many of them have made an interim target commitment, which is based on getting them to net zero by 2050, so in many cases there are businesses ahead of the government.

"But this clarity and certainty is an important indicator to all businesses and all industries that there's a commitment there and they want to be part of it."

The government has been consulting with industries over how they can reduce their emissions since late 2021, with the process not expected to conclude until the end of the year.

Mr Whitby said that would help inform the targets the government would set on their way to 2050.

"It's no good plucking a figure out of the air and saying let's go for that," he said.

"We need to know what we can achieve, what we can achieve in the interim, what gets us to net zero by 2050."

No consequences if target not met

The legislation will not include consequences if it the goal is not met, nor will it prescribe specific targets for individual emitters to reduce their carbon footprint.

Instead, Mr Whitby said it was about looking at the economy as a whole and finding reductions where they could be made.

He also pointed out the role the state's environmental regulator, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), would have in achieving the soon-to-be legislated target.

"We have an EPA which has an approvals process which regulates emission reductions, and it's the only EPA in Australia currently doing this," he said.

"So all of those big emitters that we worry about, whenever they have a new proposal, whenever they are in front of the EPA, the EPA is requiring them to have a realistic and achievable emission reduction that gets them to 2050."

Targets must be set soon: expert

The government's commitment has been welcomed by the Climate Council, Conservation Council WA and the WA Greens.

Research director at the Climate Council, Simon Bradshaw, said while legislating the 2050 goal was a welcome step and caught WA up with other states, targets for 2030 emissions needed to be set soon.

"It's those interim targets that are so important and where the discussion has to move now, because it's that scale and pace of emissions reductions through the 2020s that's so critical when it comes to limiting harmful climate change," he told ABC Radio Perth.

"I think as a minimum, Western Australia should be looking to at least match what the big eastern states, New South Wales and Victoria, have put on the table, both planning to halve emissions by 2030.

"That's certainly eminently feasible and would start to catch up with what the science demands."

But Dr Bradshaw said aiming for a 75 per cent reduction by 2030 would be even better and was "technically feasible", given WA's "untapped potential" for renewable energy and low-to-no carbon industries.

Commitment 'meaningless' without interim targets

Greens MP Brad Pettitt, who had introduced his own bill to parliament in 2021 trying to implement 2030 targets, reinforced the importance of mid-term targets.

"Without strong, science-led interim targets, this actually becomes rather meaningless," he told ABC Radio Perth.

He questioned whether the government's consultations with industry, which will have lasted nearly two years by the time they finish, will lead to science-informed targets.

WA's Conservation Council said it was "concerning" that emissions in WA continued to grow, warning that unless the policy was made to work, the state would experience more "unprecedented and extreme" bushfires, floods and droughts.

"The key to this new legislation will be setting adequate five-yearly interim emissions targets. We cannot allow for a model which permits unsustainable amounts of pollution right up until 2050," Conservation Council of WA programs director Maggie Wood said.

"Polluters must be compelled to make meaningful cuts to their emissions as quickly as possible if we are to avoid the worst extremes of climate change.

"The amount of progress we make in this decade will be crucial."

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