New figures show Australia has little chance of meeting its emissions targets. After a period of flatlining figures, the numbers are going up sharply. By Mike Seccombe.
Australia’s greenhouse emissions are still rising
Australia is not on track to meet its promised climate targets. The nation’s emissions of planet-heating gases, having flatlined for the past couple of years, are going up again.
For the year to June, according to the preliminary numbers from the government’s latest national greenhouse gas inventory, emissions were 4.1 million tonnes above those for the corresponding period the previous year.
The federal government’s legislated target is a 43 per cent reduction by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. They should be tracking down by a couple of per cent each year; instead they just increased by 0.9 per cent in 12 months.
There are several reasons for this, but if you want to get an insight into one of the big ones, watch a game of football on television.
Every time a try is scored in rugby league, you get to see it again on the “Isuzu MU-X replay”. The sponsoring vehicle is a three-litre diesel, which emits about 212g of CO2 for every kilometre driven, as well as other gases and particulates that make diesel engines particularly dirty.
During breaks in play, you’ll see ads for the MU-X’s sister model, the D-Max ute. Same engine, equally dirty. And worse, you’ll see ads for something even bigger and more polluting, an American behemoth called the Ram, whose sales pitch is that it “eats utes for breakfast”. Rams pump out 283g/km, according to 2021 data from the National Transport Commission.
By way of comparison, in 2021 the average new car in Europe emitted about 108g/km, or about a third of a Ram.
It’s a similar story if you prefer AFL to league, as Professor Stuart Newstead, director of the accident research centre at Melbourne’s Monash University can attest. Only the brands are different.
“Toyota is a major sponsor of the AFL,” he says. “The last seven years in a row the Toyota HiLux has been the No.1 selling vehicle in Australia.”
Indeed, the major prize in the AFL’s fantasy football competition this year is an “epic” $70,000 Toyota HiLux diesel 4X4 ute – which emits about double the average of a European car. The makers of these dirty vehicles know their target market.
“Tradies, utes and football go hand in hand,” says Newstead.
Newstead understands the commercial need for these vehicles. Except, he notes, many, if not most, are not used primarily for work. The tenor of the ads confirms this. The images are of happy families towing boats or tearing up the environment in their four-wheel drives.
“Australians’ preference is for buying commercial vehicles and using them as passenger cars,” he says. “So something like 25 per cent of total vehicle sales now are light commercial vehicles, and the vast majority of those are diesel. Just over 50 per cent [of new car sales] are SUVs. Only about 17 per cent are regular passenger-type cars.”
The massive shift in buyer preference that has taken place over the past 10 or 15 years, he says, has added to Australia’s road toll. Large SUVs and especially utes “are not particularly safe for their occupants … but they are particularly dangerous for other road users”.
You are 50 to 60 per cent more likely to kill someone if you crash into them with a ute rather than a small sedan, says Newstead. They really don’t have much to recommend them.
“Not only are you filling up the environment with greenhouse gases, you’re also killing more people.”
At first blush, last week’s inventory report appears to be good news for emissions from the transport sector – they were down 3.9 per cent from the 2019 peak. But that was all about the pandemic. The longer-term story is the true one. Compared with 2005 – the base year for calculating Australia’s emissions reduction efforts – greenhouse gases produced by the transport sector are up by almost a fifth.
The recent jump was led by aviation – up a whopping 63.4 per cent in the year to March – but road transport emissions also have resumed their upward trajectory post-pandemic.
We can thank the Morrison government for encouraging this, notes Newstead. As part of its pandemic stimulus, it allowed small business owners to claim an instant asset write-off when they bought utes worth up to $150,000.
The new government has cut the tax break, but the harm done will endure for decades, as long as these things remain on the road.
Behyad Jafari is a sports fan whose enjoyment of rugby league has been diminished by the constant ads for heavily polluting vehicles. He is also the chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council. He would like to see greater disincentives for the purchase of what he calls “American-style large utes and SUVs, extra-large, monster truck-size ones” like the Ram, that are increasingly being pushed into the Australian market.
“If we’re going to let this new type of personal vehicles onto our roads, we need to treat them differently, given the additional costs they’re going to create,” he says.
Apart from their outsized climate impact, he says, they take up more lane and parking space, do greater damage in collisions and cause more injuries and deaths. He suggests new licensing conditions with much higher fees.
One positive change that could be made is new fuel efficiency standards, which require carmakers or their local suppliers to improve the average fuel efficiency of new cars over time. Most of the world’s major economies, except Australia and Russia, have them.
The Albanese government has promised to introduce fuel efficiency standards by year’s end. The question is how rigorous they will be.
As things stand, new cars in Australia use about 40 per cent more fuel than those in the European Union and 20 per cent more than even the United States. And we are falling ever further behind. The average emissions of new cars in Europe declined more than 5 per cent last year.
The most recent Australian figures, from 2021, show a decline of just 2 per cent, largely due to the countervailing influence of electric vehicles.
On the upside, the uptake of EVs has quadrupled since then. But they still comprise just 8.4 per cent of new vehicles sold, says Jafari.
Even assuming stringent fuel efficiency standards and an accelerating shift to EVs, he says, the transport sector is not going to contribute much towards the 2030 emissions reduction target.
“With good, globally comparable standards, we can at least stop emissions from transport going up. But there’s no light switch that we can flick to suddenly decarbonise. Given a car stays on the road for 15 to 20 years, it takes several decades for change to see its way through.”
The task of hitting Australia’s emissions reduction target would be hard enough if it was just transport emissions that were problematic, but other sectors of the economy are going backwards to an even greater extent, as the greenhouse gas inventory report reveals.
The second-biggest source of emissions, and the one that has grown most since 2005, is what the report calls “stationary energy excluding electricity”, which includes fossil fuels burned for a wide range of purposes – in manufacturing, mining, residential and commercial use.
Most of the inexorable rise in this sector is down to one thing, however, as the report notes: “Emissions have increased 26.7% … driven, in particular, by continued growth in the production and export of LNG [liquefied natural gas] … LNG exports have increased by 231% compared to the year to June 2015, before the start of the rapid ramp-up.”
Australia’s governments, state and federal, Labor and Coalition, attempt to wash their hands of the contribution to global heating from Australia’s fossil fuel exports on the basis the emissions created are the responsibility of the importing countries.
That is only partly true, says Polly Hemming, director of the Climate and Energy program at The Australia Institute.
“We’re exporting the vast majority of the gas we produce, and burning it offshore doesn’t officially count in our accounts. But it does result in emissions onshore as well.”
That’s because extracting the gas and liquefying it for export requires vast amounts of energy. In fact, the biggest user of gas in Australia is the gas industry itself. An institute analysis in 2020 found 12 times as much gas was burned just processing LNG for export than was used in the entire manufacturing industry, and twice as much as was used by Australian households.
Another category that has grown dramatically since 2005 is fugitive emissions. That is gas, mostly methane, that leaks out during the mining, processing storage and transport of fossil fuels. It makes up just over 10 per cent of the total. If the official numbers are to be believed, fugitive emissions from coalmines have fallen by less than two million tonnes, while those from gas have gone up about three million.
“But we’re probably dramatically underestimating them,” says Hemming. She points to data that came out this year from the International Energy Agency, which suggests these emissions are likely to be at least 60 per cent higher.
One slightly bright spot in the data is the agriculture sector. Since 2005 these emissions are down a little, though they rose sharply last year. And the numbers there are subject to the same doubts as mining when it comes to methane. It’s hard to measure how much of the gas livestock burp up, and the annual emissions vary greatly, depending on the weather.
Other data from the government is also dubious. Hemming cites the category of land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). According to the government, the sector was “net sink”, which reduced Australia’s emissions by 13.7 per cent in the year to March. But the data relies on counting things such as “forest land remaining forest land”, “grassland remaining grassland” and “cropland remaining cropland”.
It so happens that the baseline year, 2005, coincided with the end of massive land clearing in Queensland. Essentially, she suggests, this amounts to an accounting trick: we have booked large benefits just for not destroying the environment. And big polluters can avoid cutting their emissions by buying “offsets” in the form of avoided deforestation or tree planting.
In summary, across most major sectors emissions have either grown or have recorded questionable reductions. The big exception is the significant declines in the electricity sector, which now accounts for a third of all Australia’s emissions.
“Electricity is doing all the heavy lifting,” says Tony Wood, energy program director for the Grattan Institute. “But it’s now largely feeding off the past. We’ve put in wind and solar farms and put solar on rooftops as well. Having exhausted most of the capacity on the transmission grid, we’ve run into the hard bit [of the transition] where we’ve got to build all this new transmission.”
At least 10,000km of it, according to the government’s own estimates.
“The problem with the transmission,” says Wood, “isn’t there’s not enough money. The problem is a whole lot of practical regulatory things that create real risk for investors.”
This is a real concern politically as well as environmentally.
The current government, he notes, has made three big commitments: to reduce all emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, to have 82 per cent of electricity produced from renewable sources, “and to bring your power bills down by $275 by 2025”.
“And all were based on some financial modelling that’s never been made public,” Wood says.
These were big, ambitious calls. The share of renewables went from 11 per cent to about 40 per cent in 25 years. “And now we’re going to get to 82 within seven years?”
Wood thinks it will be hard to get beyond about 70 per cent.
“It’s still possible we could get to 82. But a lot of projects would have to be close to getting to financial closure right now, because if they’re not starting construction and in three or four years’ time, they’re not going to contribute much in 2030.”
And there has been a decline in commitments to new renewables projects.
“So, the things that were pushing us along have seriously slowed down and the other stuff hasn’t even started yet.”
At least, he says, Labor has a plan. The previous Coalition government operated on the Micawber principle that something would turn up.
“They just assumed a whole lot of technologies that’ll save us would appear at the back end of the 2040s,” says Wood.
The opposition still don’t have a policy, he says, and are instead content to “sit back and fire rockets”, particularly about the impact of new transmission lines on rural landholders.
Time is against us, says Hemming – 2030 is not far away.
“With every month that goes by, the task gets harder. In June last year, in order to achieve a 43 per cent reduction, we would have had to reduce emissions by 7.3 million tonnes each quarter. Now to stay on track, we have to cut 8.6 million tonnes every quarter,” she says.
The task is a bit like those cars they advertise during our football matches. It just gets bigger and more daunting all the time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Australia’s greenhouse emissions are still rising".
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