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While greenhouse emissions were stable over the year, an uptick in the June quarter shows pollution is not in decline despite Australia’s net zero by 2050 pledge
Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rose in the June quarter by about 2% as pollution from the electricity sector and transport increased.
Figures released on Tuesday by the Morrison government showed that on a year to year basis, emissions for the 12 months to last June totalled 498.9m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That tally was down 2.1%, or 10.8m tonnes compared with the same period a year earlier.
However, on a seasonally adjusted quarterly basis, emissions increased to 127m tonnes, or just over 2%, from the 124.4m tonnes reported in the March quarter. For the year to March, emissions totalled 494.2m tonnes, underscoring the pickup in pollution in the more recent quarter.
A stable pollution rate, if not a rising one, is also implied by the government’s release of preliminary figures for the September quarter. They point to 125m tonnes of emissions in trend terms for the July-September months, bringing the year to September total to about 500m tonnes, the latest report said.
The government has made much of Australia “meeting and beating” climate targets. However, the latest statistics show mostly emissions are not in decline despite its pledge ahead of the Glasgow climate summit that the country would hit net zero by 2050.
“Nothing’s happening except for the electricity sector,” said Hugh Saddler, an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University. Once Covid curbs on the economy eased, such as during the current quarter, emission sources such as from transport will show a rise, he predicted.
Falling costs for new wind and solar farms are pushing coal and gas out of electricity generation, as well as pushing down power prices. In seasonally adjusted terms, though, emissions for that sector rose from 39.7m tonnes the March quarter to 41.6m in the June one.
Most other sectors were steady, with pollution from transport adding almost 1m tonnes in the June quarter.
On an annual basis, a 500m tonnes tally is the lowest since records began in the 1990s. That lower trajectory, though, is lower due much to the land sector remaining a net sink even as some experts raise questions about the true trends when it comes to land clearing.
According to the government, this sector – known as land use, land-use change and forestry – amounted to a net reduction of emissions of 24.4m tonnes, or almost negative 5% of the national total, in the year to June.
“The magnitude of this net sink has decreased by 0.6% (0.2 Mt CO2-e) on the previous 12 months due to an increase in emissions from agricultural soils, partially offset by a continuing decline in land clearing emissions,” the latest report said.
For its part, the government also touted the increase of renewable energy as central to driving emissions lower.
“Since 2017, Australia’s consumption of renewable energy has grown at a compound annual rate of 4.6%, with more than $40bn invested in Australia’s renewable energy sector,” Angus Taylor, the federal energy minister said. “Last year, Australia deployed new solar and wind at eight times the global per capita average.”
ANU’s Saddler said the main driver had been the 2020 Renewable Energy Target that the Coalition government had cut, and had anyway been implemented “a very considerable time ago”.
Tim Baxter, the Climate Council’s senior researcher, said “the time for leaning on the achievements of others is long since past”.
“We need a federal government willing to step up on emissions reductions and take charge with real policy, not wishlists,” he said, referring to the government’s net zero plan to rely on technologies to cut pollution, some of which don’t exist now.