Australia’s emissions are showing early signs of returning to higher levels, as Covid-19 related travel restrictions and the impacts of drought both begin to lift, leading to a rise in emissions in the third quarter of 2020.
According to updated quarterly emissions data published by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources on Friday, Australia’s annual emissions fell 4.4 per cent during the year ending September 2020, as a result of continued falls in emissions in the electricity sector (down 4.0 per cent) and a substantial fall in transport emissions as a result of Covid-19 related travel restrictions (down 10.2 per cent).
Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions stood at 510.1 million tonnes for the year to September 2020, down 23.3 million tonnes from the period 12 months prior.
However, national emissions were up on a quarter-by-quarter basis, rising by 2.8 per cent in the three months ending September 2020, as Australians returned to normal routines, with transport emissions surging 11.7 per cent in the quarter.
The electricity sector continued its steady trend of decreasing emissions on the back of falling demand, increased production from wind and solar farms, and decreasing output from coal and gas generators.
Since 2010, total demand in the National Electricity Market, which has fallen steadily year-on-year as households invest in energy efficiency measures, and a greater portion of electricity is supplied by behind-the-meter rooftop solar installations.
Overall, demand for electricity in the NEM fell 3.9 per cent in the last quarter of 2020, while output from renewable energy sources increased by 5.5 per cent during the same period.
This meant that generation from coal and gas plants was squeezed during the period, contributing to a 5.6 per cent fall in NEM emissions for the 2020 year.
Annual emissions from industrial energy use rose slightly in the year to September 2020, up 1.4 per cent, while the amount of emissions avoided or captured through land use and forestry was also smaller during the year.
The updated data shows just how much of an impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on Australia’s transport emissions and just how quickly this may return to normal levels.
In the period between March and June 2020, at the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns, petrol consumption fell 24.3 per cent has people shifted to working from home arrangements and cancelled travel plans.
However, the department said that there were already early signs of a return to “normal” across the economy, with transport emissions lifting in the three months to September 2020, after the initial slump caused by Covid-19 lockdowns.
Petrol use was up by 17 per cent in the period between July and September 2020, as some domestic travel restrictions were lifted and many returned to normal travel arrangements. Diesel consumption, which is primarily used in mining and agricultural operations, has largely returned to normal levels.
While the government figures do not provide a specific breakdown of aviation emissions, financial results from Australia’s major airlines show that domestic air travel still remains well below historical levels.
Emissions in the agricultural sector were down 2.5 per cent for the year, which relates to the continued impacts of drought on cattle numbers.
While drought conditions have lifted across much of Australia, it will take some time for cattle numbers to return to their previous levels.
Much of the emissions reductions being observed throughout 2020 are likely to relate to temporary disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the impacts of last year’s drought conditions. However, federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor took credit for the reductions, saying they were part of ‘structural declines’ in Australia’s emissions.
“These results reflect significant long-term structural declines in emissions from the electricity and agriculture sectors, and a temporary decline in emissions from agriculture (due to the drought) and transport (due to coronavirus restrictions),” Taylor said in a statement.
“The continuing structural decline in emissions from electricity is driven by Australia’s world leading deployment of solar and wind. Since 2017, Australia has invested $35 billion in renewables and we are continuing to deploy new solar and wind 10 times faster than the global per person average.”
However, Climate Council researcher Tim Baxter challenged any suggestions that the Morrison government was in a position to claim credit for the recent fall in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“COVID-19 has impacted our economy and transport sector dramatically, while emissions reductions in the electricity sector are due to state and territory-led wind and solar projects coming online in recent months,” Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter said.
“The Federal Government can take zero credit for the emissions reductions posted today. These reductions have happened in spite of the Federal Government, not because of it.”
“The Federal Government cannot rely on a pandemic to keep its emissions suppressed. Emissions will rise again unless we change the way we create and use energy, get around, and make products,” Baxter added.
Updated figures for Australia’s corporate emitters released by the Clean Energy Regulator on Thursday showed that Australia’s big energy companies and energy intensive resources companies continue to dominate the list of Australia’s biggest polluters.
Australia’s ‘big three’ energy companies, AGL Energy, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy, which all operate significant portfolios of coal-fired generators, ranked amongst the largest emitters.
Along with the Queensland government owned generators Stanwell Corporation and CS Energy, big coal plant operators together made up the top five emitters and were responsible for a combined 106 million tonnes of emissions in the 2019-20, or around one-fifth of Australia’s total emissions.