Covid-19 hasn’t fixed Australia’s emissions tug-of-war

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The latest update of Australia’s emissions shows what many were expecting: the presence of a global pandemic has barely made a dent into the tug of war between the things that are pulling Australia’s emissions down – mainly, renewables – and things pulling them up – mainly, transport industry and the rapidly expanding extraction of fossil gas.

If the growth of clean energy falters – as it well might – or if the gas industry gets its way and co-opts pandemic recovery funding to fuel another public health crisis – the outcomes will be a disastrous swing away from this nervous equilibrium that has become the norm in Australia’s emissions data.

If this tug-of-war is won, renewables growth increases, and transport and fossil gas emissions fall, then Australia might start being on its way to meet its Paris commitments; albeit with plenty of work to do in the next decade. It’s a tense moment. Shall we dig in?

Renewables growth

Easily the most significant factor that’s putting downward pressure on emissions in Australia has been the growth of renewable energy in the electricity sector. Excluding the controversial land use category, it has seen the most significant reductions in emissions:

A recently released report from Australia’s Clean Energy Regulator outlines the success of clean energy in a simpler fashion: they have done an amazing job at reducing emissions; quantified in their report and reproduced below.

Excellent, right? It is  – but the question of whether this will continue remains open, and quite tense.  Investment in renewable energy has dropped off significantly. Victoria – easily the hotbed of new renewable development – might be facing a similar drop-off after 2022. There is still plenty of work to be done to ensure this momentum is maintained.

Fossil gas is an emissions killer

It’s still not particularly well known that fossil gas has an incredible emissions burden before a single molecule of the stuff is ever even burned. This is why Australia’s global role as a key provider of this fossil fuel is killing any hope of emissions reductions in the country. This industry’s impacts are spread across several sectors and mixed in with other factors, but the impact of fossil gas extraction is very clear:

This is bad, but what’s worse is that the government intends to make it worse than bad. The long-held ‘gas-fired recovery’ touted by Australia’s energy minister Angus Taylor would surely accelerate this trend – Scott Morrison’s ‘get the gas’ slogans seem to back this up. Worse, Taylor seems set on propping up unprofitable gas projects using the clean energy finance corporation – a horrible twisting of the clear emissions reductions mandate of that organisation towards something that increases emissions.

There is a push, and a pull, to Australia’s emissions data, and the consequence of both are an emissions trajectory that has become largely static, when it should already be rapidly falling to meet the 2030 Paris climate agreement targets. If we trace out a linear pathway to net zero by 2050, that 2030 ambition should be roughly double (a bit more ambitious but mostly aligned with Labor’s previous climate policy):

That’s meant to look a little scary, right? Well, emissions reductions in Australia aligned with a net zero target are actually roughly on par with the actual reductions acheived during the days of the Labor party’s policy ambitions. If you literally pick up that 2020 to 2030 red line and plonk it over Labor’s run of significant emissions reductions, you can see they’re very similar in terms of the rate of reductions:

Those days weren’t so bad, were they? Australia’s economy grew, our lives remained relatively comfortable and no towns were wiped off the map by the carbon price. Imagine what we could do a decade later, with ultra-cheap renewables and ten year’s worth of added knowledge on rapid decarbonisation. The first step, of course, means winning the tug of war and kicking things off in the right direction. Time to heave.

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