Strong investment in new wind and solar projects, the effects of Covid-19 and the ongoing decline of the coal sector helped to drive Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions lower in 2020 – but the early signs of a Covid-19 recovery bounce-back are already starting to show.
According to the federal government’s latest quarterly update of Australia’s national greenhouse gas inventory, Australia’s emissions fell by 5 per cent in 2020 to 499 million tonnes.
The fall in emissions was the result of the combined impacts of further increases in the share of electricity being produced by renewable energy sources and the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to substantial falls in transport emissions. In addition, a significant decline in coal production also contributed to the overall fall in national emissions.
Emissions from the electricity sector fell by 4.9 per cent in the 2020 year – driven by a 16.1 per cent increase in the amount of electricity supplied by renewable energy sources and a 4.4 per cent decline in coal generation.
The updated data includes emissions up until the end of 2020, with fresh data now published for the last three months of the year.
The data shows that emissions from the transport sector have almost bounced back to their pre-Covid levels. The transport sector was responsible for 23.5 million tonnes in the last quarter of 2020, compared to 25.6 million tonnes a year prior - before Covid-19 led to widescale movement restrictions.
Over the 2020 year, transport emissions fell by 12.1 per cent due to reduced petrol consumption and a dramatic fall in domestic air travel. But there are signs of a recovery in transport emissions, as a lifting of travel restrictions throughout 2020 has seen transport levels largely return to normal levels.
Fugitive emissions also ended the year 8.8 per cent lower, which was caused by a significant fall in coal extraction. Fugitive emissions, which relate to escaped greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel extraction and processing had been steadily rising due to a massive ramp-up in Australian fossil gas production.
Federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor also attributed part of the fall to the commencement of carbon storage operations at Chevron's Gorgon LNG facility off the Western Australian coast. While that project has commenced the storing of up to 4 million tonnes of equivalent emissions each year, it has been beset by operational challenges and delays.
Western Australian state regulators ordered the facility to curtail the amount of carbon being stored by the Gorgon project until issues were resolved.
While LNG exports surged to all-time highs in 2020, fugitive emissions fell by 4.6 per cent in the last three months of 2020 alone, due in part to a 5.0 per cent decline in coal production.
Emissions from the agricultural sector increased for their second consecutive quarter, as drought conditions have eased in many parts of Australia. Increased availability of feed has allowed farmers to begin rebuilding their stock levels, leading to increases in emissions from cattle raising.
Research group the Climate Council noted the overall declines in greenhouse gas emissions but noted that they were not the result of policies introduced by the Morrison government.
"Every quarter, the Federal Government tries to take credit for emissions reductions it has made zero contribution to. Instead, it is holding back progress on the scale and pace of emissions reductions we need," Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter said.
"Electricity emissions declined due to state efforts to scale up renewable energy, while transport emissions decreased largely due to COVID restrictions. The Federal Government played no role in this."
"Meanwhile, the Federal Government has not introduced a single climate policy that has demonstrably reduced emissions: be it developing renewable energy technology to support a transition away from fossil fuels; or incentivising electric vehicle purchases," Baxter added.
Australia's emissions are 20.1 per cent below 2005 levels - the Morrison government has set a target to cut emissions by between 26 to 28 per cent by 2030. Scientists have warned that a transition to zero net emissions may need to occur as early as 2030 to limit global warming to just 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels - a level that would provide a reasonable chance of avoiding more extreme impacts of global warming.
The Federal government is required to publish quarterly updates to Australia's greenhouse emissions data, with a senate order requiring the update be published no later than five months after the last full quarter.
As is usual practice, the updated data was provided by the Morrison government to sympathetic media outlets before being released to the general public.
The quarterly updates to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions inventory provide an interim estimate of Australia's emissions - with the Department of Industry Science Energy and Resources confirming figures are subject to a margin of error of 4.2 per cent. The interim data is often adjusted in subsequent updates.