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Australia’s 2017 carbon emission projections – yet more spin and red herrings from the Australian government

2017 was one of Australia’s hottest years on record and already 2018 is shaping up to follow suit with some places recording their highest ever temperatures in January.

Collective action, based on clear and accurate information, is the key to minimising the devastating impact of climate change.  Therefore it is disappointing to see that a key government report mis-represents Australia’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as described below by President of the Climate and Health Alliance, Dr Peter Sainsbury.

The need for more reporting of climate change and environmental issues has led the Guardian to crowdfund a new series of articles focusing on this topic and its success thus far in raising the funds suggests that there is considerable interest among readers in obtaining information that is less politicised and more objective than that found in government reports.  Hopefully there will be some scope within this series to cover the potentially catastrophic health impacts of climate change.

This article was first published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog and is re-published here, in full, with permission.


Peter Sainsbury writes:

In December 2017 the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy published its annual report on greenhouse gas emission projections, Australia’s emissions projections 2017

The publication is notable for obfuscation and spin rather than serious attention to the most serious and threatening issue: Australia’s projected increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission between now and 2030. Boldly asserting that ‘Australia continues to make good progress in reducing emissions’ the government emphasises:

(1) reductions over the last 5 years in its own projections of GHG emissions to 2020 and 2030 (attempting to be reassuring with ‘we’re saying that things don’t look quite as desperate now as we said they did in 2012’);

(2) a roughly 7% reduction in GHG emissions between 2005 and 2017, and;

(3) projected reductions between now and 2030 in emissions per capita of population and the emissions intensity of our economy, i.e. how much GHG is emitted per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) generated.

Meaningless measures

The Government loves to highlight these last two measures because they hoodwink the casual reader but they are completely meaningless in terms of averting catastrophic climate change. Global warming will not be reduced by greater ‘emissions efficiency’ (fewer GHG emissions per capita or per unit of GDP). It will be contained only by limiting the total amount of GHGs that we pump into the atmosphere; global warming obeys the unchangeable natural laws of physics, not the flaky oft-disputed ‘laws’ of economics or the dark arts of political spin.

What Australia’s emissions projections 2017 report skates over, with no mention of the facts highlighted below in the Executive Summary or a 3-page accompanying fact sheet, is that (see Figure 3 of the report, reproduced below):

  • Between 1990 and 2017 Australia’s GHG emissions have, with some fluctuations, remained remarkably constant – i.e. there has been no overall trend of reduction. Indeed emissions are about 10% higher now than they were in 1995;
  • GHG emissions are projected to increase by 3.5% between 2017 and 2030. When briefly discussing this, the report advises that the projected increase in emissions between 2020 and 2030 is mostly attributable to the transport and agriculture sectors;
  • Emissions are projected to be approximately the same in 2030 as in 1990 – 40 years of knowledge about both the problem and what needs to be done to combat it will have produced nothing in terms of GHG emissions reductions;
  • Australia’s projected GHG emissions in 2030 (570 Mt CO2-e) will be about 30% above what they need to be (approximately 436 Mt CO2-e) for Australia to meet its modest commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce GHG emissions by 26-28% compared with 2005 (Figure 4 of the report).

Australia’s emissions trends, 1990 to 2030 (Figure 3, Australia’s emissions projections 2017)

Sainsbury graph

A better measure

The true measure of the government’s commitment to reducing GHG emissions can be gauged from another report released in December 2017, the 2017 Review of Climate Change Policies . No mention at all in this report of the projected increase in Australian emissions to 2030. Rather, the government intends to continue and possibly make ‘fairer and simpler’ (i.e. make more available) the so-called Safeguard Mechanism.

This is a safeguard for polluting businesses, certainly not the environment or human health, whereby a facility can increase its GHG emissions if it increases its production capacity by more than 20%. So for instance, a company that produces a million widgets and a million tons of GHGs this year can emit even more GHGs next year if it produces more than 1.2 million widgets.

The laws of physics don’t care how economically efficiently GHGs are produced but the government makes explicit that promoting Australia’s international competitiveness and supporting jobs is more important than preventing a global catastrophe.

Ignoring the science

It is staggering that the Australian government can in 2017 be blithely projecting an increase in GHG emissions over the next decade and encouraging individual companies to increase their emissions. The scientific evidence is clear for all to see.

The global average of just over 1oC of warming that we have experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution is already damaging the natural environment (e.g. dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost, and rising sea levels), changing weather patterns (e.g. increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and cyclones), and causing highly preventable illness, injury and death in humans around the world.

All nations have agreed to limit warming to 2oC by 2100 but it must be recognised that 2oC has been agreed, after much international wrangling, by the world’s politicians. A rise of 2oC is not, as many seem to think, a ‘safe’ level of warming for the natural environment or human health based on the scientific evidence.

A global average temperature increase of 2oC will, for instance, create many regions that are uninhabitable for humans, generate more and more-damaging extreme weather events, threaten food and fresh water supplies, and cause many animal and plant species to become extinct. And notwithstanding that nations have agreed to limit warming to 2oC, their commitment to meaningful action remains poor: the cumulative pledges in Paris to take action on GHG emissions will limit warming to only an even more disastrous 3.5-4oC.

The Carbon Crunch

Science tells us that to have even a 66% chance of limiting global warming to 2oC by the end of the 21st century global GHG emissions must peak by 2020 and then reduce at 10% per year every year for the next three decades; what Christiana Figueres and others have called the Carbon Crunch.

Another way of looking at it is that emissions must reduce by about 50% every decade to 2050. And even if we achieve that, we will still need to draw carbon out of the atmosphere in the second half of the century to be below 2oC in 2100, something we currently do not have the technology to achieve.

Working together

Being positive and focused on the short term, however, to achieve emissions reductions all nations must work together. The developed nations must not only reduce their own emissions dramatically; they must also help low and middle income countries with technology and finance to develop socially and economically while simultaneously leapfrogging the high carbon-emitting fossil fuel powered industrial systems that enabled the rich ‘western’ nations to become over the last 200 years what they are today.

During that time Australia has emitted more than its fair share of carbon and has got very rich as a result. It is selfish and unprincipled for us now to argue that we are responsible for a relatively small percentage of all current GHG emissions and hence have little obligation to reduce our own emissions or help other less fortunate nations. It’s time we developed some moral backbone and it’s time the government and Malcolm Turnbull led the way. They could start by being more honest and transparent in their publications and speeches.

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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