Australia's greenhouse gas emissions fall slightly as new clean energy comes online

Adam Morton Environment editor
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions fell slightly last year, according to official data released on Friday, as new clean energy plants came online and the drought continued to limit farming output.

But the reduction was largely wiped out by an increase in carbon pollution from big industrial sites, particularly liquefied natural gas plants off the country’s northern coast.

Emissions were down 0.9% compared with 2018, but were still higher than the previous two years. According to revised emissions data, they have dipped 1.5% since the Coalition was elected in 2013 after falling about 14% while Labor was in power for the previous six years.

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The biggest chunk of the reduction last year was in electricity, which fell 2.9%. It was largely the result of record renewable energy investment in 2018, driven in part by the national renewable energy target.

The target, roughly equating to 23% of electricity generation on the national grid coming from clean sources, was filled last year and has not been replaced. The Reserve Bank recently noted that renewable energy investment fell 50% last year compared with 2018.

Emissions from agriculture fell substantially, by nearly 6%, as an unprecedented drought led to significant reduction in stocks and both financial and carbon dioxide output.

Together, the cut from electricity and agriculture was 9.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide.

But emissions from stationary energy, which includes the manufacturing, construction and commercial sectors, were up 2.7%. Fugitive emissions, released during coal and gas extraction, were estimated to have increased 2.5%. It meant the overall decline for the year was 5m tonnes.

In a statement released late on Thursday, Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, said emissions were 13.7% below 2005 levels.

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This is relevant because the government has set a target under the Paris agreement of emissions being 26-28% less than in 2005 by 2030.

In answers to parliament earlier this month, Taylor conceded Australia was not on track to meet the 2030 target unless it claimed credits from the first global climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. Legal advice has suggested those credits have no force in the Paris agreement. Australia is the only nation planning to use the credits, and several countries have objected to their use.

On Thursday, Taylor also said Australia was forecast to officially “beat” its Kyoto target – a 5% cut below 2000 levels by 2020 – by 411m tonnes on 1 July.

“This is an achievement all Australians can be proud of,” he said.

Australia is meeting its Kyoto target in part through the use of carbon accounting rules. In reality, national emissions are estimated to be 2.4% lower than in 2000.

Taylor emphasised a significant percentage of national emissions were released by export industries. He said emissions generated for domestic consumption were down 33% since 2005.

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“Importantly, our domestic emissions have fallen at the same time demand for Australian energy exports remains strong, which will be vital to our post Covid-19 economic recovery,” he said.

The minister has backed gas as being key to driving economic recovery after the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The government is resisting calls internationally and at home to set a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found global carbon dioxide emissions were likely to need to fall 45% between 2010 and 2030 and reach net zero by about 2050 if global heating was to be limited to 1.5C.

The latest Australian emissions data includes a preliminary estimate of the impact of the pandemic on emissions from the national electricity grid only. It suggests they were down only 2.8% compared with a year earlier, little more than they would have expected to be if the economy had not shut down.

It is consistent with an analysis by the Australia Institute, which found the country’s coal-dominated grid had been little affected as large industry had mostly continued to operate.