World's carbon emissions hit record high - and Australia is part of the problem

The federal government insists Australia is well in line to meet global climate targets, but new data suggests otherwise.

New data released on Thursday shows carbon emissions around the world are set to increase for the second consecutive year in 2018, following three years of stable emissions.

The authors of the report, from the Global Carbon Project headquartered in Australia, said global emissions are expected to rise 2.7 per cent in 2018 to reach a record high of 37.1 billion tonnes. 

The Global Carbon Project's Pep Canadell said the report showed just how much work needs to be done if countries want to achieve the Paris target of a two degree Celsius limit of global warming. 

"The biggest surprise in the data was that the gap between what we need to do and what we're doing is growing," he said. 

"And it's not because we're not doing enough [to lower emissions] it is because global emissions keep going up."

The global emissions trajectory required for the 1.5 and 2 degree global warming scenarios.
Source: Global Carbon Project

The continued reliance on fossil fuels is being blamed for the increase, including a resurgence in the use of coal after an apparent peak in 2013.

China and India were the worst polluters when it came to coal due to a growing middle class and the accompanying surge in demand for energy consumption. The United States is trending down on its coal emissions based on the large-scale closure of coal-fired power plants.

Long-term growth in the consumption of fossil fuels, oil and natural gas continued, while cement emissions has slowed.

Countries reducing emissions

A group of 19 countries - led by the US and the United Kingdom - were considered star performers in reducing their country emissions over the last decade to 2017.

The group accounts for 20 per cent of global emissions and includes: Aruba, Barbados, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uzbekistan as well as the US and UK. 

The European Union is set to possibly see its first reduction since 2014, with a projected drop of -0.7 per cent.

Countries increasing emissions

The usual 'big polluter' suspects - India and China - are projected to see an increase in emissions of 6.3 per cent, and 4.7 per cent respectively.

And while over the past decade the US was on track, its emissions for 2018 also increased by 2.5 per cent.

Increased oil use, heating and cooling demands in the wake of extreme weather variations have been identified as factors in the US rise in emissions.

Australia continued its trend of annual increases for the last four years to June 2018.

"It's interesting to see that Oceania, which includes Australia, is at the very top of all regions of the world. In terms of emissions per capita," Mr Canadell said.

Per capita emissions by regions.
Source: Global Carbon Project

He said the performance of the 19 emissions reducing countries shows that economic growth and emissions reductions are not in conflict. 

"There is no incompatibility," he said. "The issue is how you move - a structural change of such a large energy system from the current fossil fuel base into the renewable non-carbon world."

"The countries like the US - nothing easy is for them about moving to a lower emission pathway. Yet they're doing it through a number of technological developments and really pushing very hard on renewable energy." 

Not on track to meet Paris target 

The report applauds efforts in the growth of renewable energy globally, particularly in China and India. It is an industry, which the report says, has doubled in the last two years.

But the authors said that without an accompanying decline in fossil fuel emissions, the Paris target of 2 degree Celsius limit in global warming will not be reached.

"Growth in energy use from fossil fuel sources is still outpacing the rise of low-carbon sources and activities," the report found. 

"A quarter century after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we remain far from its signature goal to 'stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system'."

A UN report released last month came to the same conclusion, finding that Australia is unlikely to meet its Paris target based on its current trend – joining other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Argentina and the Republic of Korea.

Australian National University Professor Frank Jotzo from the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy said some form of carbon pricing will be needed for Australia to get back on track towards its Paris target. 

He said gains had been made in ramping up renewables, but said ultimately there would need to be steeper emission reductions from industries including the gas, oil, transport, building and agriculture.

"That will need policy instruments, that will need more standards and more incentives and ultimately, very importantly - some form of carbon pricing as well," he said. 

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Under the Paris deal, Australia has committed to reduce emissions to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels, based on total emissions.

The report calculates that Australia would need to achieve emissions reductions of 10 million tonnes per year, every year from now until 2030 to meet the Paris target.

Under Labor's proposal to have a national target of 45 per cent emissions reduction, the yearly target would need to be doubled to 20 million tonnes. 

Australia emissions at seven-year high

Government data shows that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have reached their highest level in seven years, mainly due to increases in emissions from diesel transport, mining and natural gas sectors.

The increase in renewable energy and closure of some brown coal power plants were not enough to offset the overall emissions growth.

Australia's annual emissions rose in the past 12 months by 0.9 per cent to reach a record level of 559 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions.

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After delaying the release of the June quarterly figures for seven weeks, according to Freedom of Information documents obtained by the Australian Conservation Foundation, the government trumpeted what it considered the most important aspect of the data.

“Emissions intensity at lowest levels for 28 years,” the press release from the office of Environment Minister Melissa Price said, focussing on emissions per capita, instead of total emissions. 

Responding to this year’s IPCC report, which urged a rapid scale-up of emissions reduction efforts, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on 30 September that he believes the country will meet its Paris commitments 'in a canter', citing investment in renewables.

"The investments that are continuing to be made in renewables, on the basis of the fact, that, increasingly, we’ve hit the threshold point, where the investments make sense, increasingly, without subsidies," he said on ABC’s Insiders Program.

"We still have large-scale and small-scale policies there. We still have the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and we still have the Emissions Reduction Fund for the period that it’s currently for, and we’re on track to hit it."

He accused critics of seizing on the total emissions figure.

"I know people will want to use that one figure [1.3 per cent] and ignore the fact that emissions per capita [are] at the lowest level in 28 years. Electricity sector emissions are down 13.9 per cent, I think it is, on 2009, on the same figures," he said at the time.

"So people choose and pick their figures to make their political arguments. We’re going to meet those in a canter."

Mr Canadell said ultimately the overall emissions target is critical in evaluating whether the Paris target is fulfilled. 

"The Paris target, the national emission target that the Australian government has set for the country is framed in absolute terms. So it has nothing to do with emissions per capita, or anything like that," he said.

"That is what should be met, and that is what needs to be met."

He said he remains optimistic the goal can be achieved, but it will require a lot of work to achieve the 1.5 degree global warming scenario.

"There is still 12 years to go. If there is a substantial decrease all the way through to 2020. Then yes, that target can be met. And in fact a much more stringent target can be made."

Published 6 December 2018 at 6:02am, updated 6 December 2018 at 8:04am
By Biwa Kwan