Recent Australian emissions cuts likely to be reversed in recovery from Covid and drought
Most of the reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions last year is likely to be wiped out as transport rebounds after Covid-19 lockdowns and farming recovers from the long-term-drought, according to an audit of national climate data.
Scott Morrison told the National Press Club earlier this month the government was “getting on with” reducing emissions, citing official data that found emissions were down 3% in the year to June to their lowest levels since 1998. He declared “these are the facts”.
An audit by Hugh Saddler, an energy consultant and honorary associate professor at ANU’s Crawford school of public policy, suggests at least some of the drop is likely to disappear.
The monthly national energy emissions audit, published by the Australia Institute, found there had been about a 4.5% fall in carbon pollution over the two years to 2020. This was mostly due to a surge in solar and wind electricity, but also linked to the impact of the Covid-19 shutdown, particularly on transport, and ongoing effects from the long-term drought, which significantly reduced sheep and cattle numbers.
The audit found the cuts in the latter two categories were not likely to continue.
The end of lockdowns and domestic travel restrictions meant emissions from road traffic and aviation were likely to “revert to their previous steadily growing trend”.
Similarly, agriculture emissions were likely to rise as drought conditions eased and herd numbers and crop production increased, in line with government projections. Nearly 80% of agricultural emissions are from livestock and cropping.
Saddler said it underlined that recent national emissions reductions had largely been the result of external circumstances, not climate policy. The Morrison government does not have overarching policies to reduce emissions from transport or agriculture.
He said a recent government “future fuels” discussion paper on reducing emissions from transport offered “almost nothing”, and the government had no plan to cut agriculture emissions. Several Nationals MPs have argued the sector should be excluded from climate commitments, a stance that puts them at odds with farming groups calling for a 2050 net zero emissions target.
“Electricity generation emissions will continue to fall but, in the absence of any significant policy changes, reductions from this sector will be offset by steadily increasing transport emissions,” Saddler said.
“Total emissions from all sectors other than electricity generation will remain almost unchanged from 2018.”
The audit is consistent with official emissions projections released in December, which estimated national carbon pollution would drop by less than 7% over the next decade under current policies.
The projections report suggested the Morrison government was not yet on track to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions target under the Paris climate conference (a 26% to 28% cut to 2005 levels). Instead, established policies would lead to a 22% cut over that timeframe. More than half of that was achieved before the Coalition was elected in 2013.
Morrison has said the government wants Australia to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050, through a “technology, not taxes” approach, but has not explained how its policies would achieve that.
Richie Merzian, the Australia Institute’s climate and energy program director, said emissions from vehicles and farming were now almost equal to those from the entire electricity sector.
“There is a real opportunity for the federal government to set the country on course to net zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner, but this requires sector-level plans for transport and agriculture,” he said.
The audit looks at the change in emissions in the national electricity market, covering the five eastern states and the Australian Capital Territory, since 2008.
They fell 26.5% over that time as coal-fired power plants closed and reduced their operating capacity, and wind and solar energy made up a greater share of the power supply.
The spike in renewable energy investment was largely driven by the national renewable energy target – which was filled in 2019 and not extended or replaced – and aided by state targets and a rapid reduction in the cost of solar and wind energy technology. Renewable energy including rooftop solar now provides about 27% of annual electricity.
Despite Covid-19 lockdowns, electricity use fell only 0.6% between February and November last year. But the amount of electricity generated by burning coal fell nearly 8% in both New South Wales and Queensland between late 2019 and late 2020.
Saddler said the NSW Electricity Infrastructure Investment Act, which passed state parliament in November and promises to underwrite 12 gigawatts of new solar and wind and 2GW of long-duration storage, would be a significant development in managing the shift to variable renewable energy.