A recent report from Future Earth has provided important insights into how COVID19 has impacted Australian emissions, and how much danger there is in a ‘gas-fired recovery’ instead of a green, climate-focused recovery.
The 2020 ‘Global Carbon Budget’ report highlights the stunning fact that COVID19 will cause a drop in global fossil CO2 emissions of 2.4 gigatonnes, resulting a total yearly sum of approximately 34 gigatonnes. This is 7% lower than the total emissions in 2019.
Mirroring recent emissions data published in Australia, this is driven mainly by a large change in transport, specifically a decrease in the use of cars and planes. The drop in emissions is the largest ever recorded – the dataset goes back many decades, and the researchers behind the document highlight that drops of just under this magnitude are required every year between 2020 and 2030 to limit climate change to the temperatures named in the Paris 2015 climate agreement.
The report outlines that, despite the temporary drop in emissions from the pandemic, the world is on track to exhaust its emissions budget within the decade, due to what may potentially be a significant upsurge in emissions as vaccines roll out and ‘business as usual’ returns to the world’s high-emitting locations. This concern is, however, tempered by the fact that Europe is leading the world in accelerating emissions reductions, with a clear downward trend compared to other regions like Asia and North America.
The report makes the data from all countries available, and they show Australia’s unique position in rising emissions (these are ‘fossil’ emissions, which exclude emissions from land use and agriculture, and refer only to carbon dioxide, one of several greenhouse gases but the largest component of the greenhouse effect):
These only go up to the end of 2019, but lasting change from 2020’s COVID19 impacts may not be guaranteed, and depend heavily on the direction of investment during the economic recovery process in many countries. A recent ’emissions gap’ report from the United Nations Develop Program shows that much of the COVID19 recovery money is heading directly to fossil fuels. “If you look at the G20 countries, and they represent probably 80% of the global economy, you have the recovery money used in fossil fuel-related industries and activities [that is] 50% more than the recovery money invested in the green economy”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The Carbon Budget report data also shows that Australia is particularly vulnerable to post-pandemic fossil fuel subsidies being used to maintain growth in emissions-intensive industries. The emissions footprint of Australia is split out by various types of fuel, and it shows that both oil and gas remain the two major sources of emissions growth, with coal continuing a very significant downwards trend that began around a decade ago:
The report highlights the need for emissions reductions across these three major sources of emissions. But over 2020, the Australian government has increased its focus on ensuring two of those three – gas and oil – are protected against the impacts of COVID19. The government’s “gas-fired recovery” scheme looks to create incentives for the extraction, transport and sale of fossil gas across Australia, through a range of new government interventions. And recently, Energy and Emissions Reductions minister Angus Taylor announced a major subsidy for petroleum refineries, obviously hit hard by COVID19.
A loud coalition of groups have been calling for a ‘green recovery‘ in Australia. This would entail support for the electrification of transport, acceleration of renewable growth, and support for workers impacted both by shifts in the energy transition and COVID19. The latest carbon budget report adds an important note of urgency, and highlights the sensitivity of this moment in the near-term trajectory of emissions. For both oil and gas to enter the same structural decline as coal, and for all three to accelerate downwards, will require a significant shift in near-term direction.