During a recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A program, former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone claimed “emissions are coming down” in Australia.
Her comment came a few days before a major UN climate summit, COP24, held in Katowice, Poland.
Other panellists on Q&A contradicted Ms Vanstone, saying emissions were rising.
This prompted many viewers of the program to call on RMIT ABC Fact Check to investigate Ms Vanstone’s claim.
Ms Vanstone’s claim is misleading.
Latest federal government figures suggest that although greenhouse gas emissions have fallen over the past 10 years, emissions started trending upwards again about four years ago.
The upturn, since 2014, has coincided with the Abbott government’s removal of the carbon tax.
Also, while emissions from electricity production have been falling, the decrease has been outweighed over the past four years by rising emissions in other sectors of the economy, such as transport, where emissions are associated with increased LNG production for export.
Emissions can be measured in different ways: for example, as total emissions or emissions per capita or per GDP.
In the past year, Australia’s total emissions have been rising. But emissions per capita or per dollar of real GDP have been falling, mainly due to Australia’s rapid population growth.
However, it is worth noting that Australia’s progress in cutting emissions under its international obligations (the Paris Agreement) is measured by changes in total emissions rather than by other measures.
As one expert put it: “The atmosphere doesn’t care how many people are contributing to emissions; it’s the total quantity of emissions that matters.”
Ms Vanstone made her claim during a discussion on Q&A about a protest by Australian schoolchildren titled ‘Strike 4 Climate Action‘.
She was speaking about the climate policies of Australia’s two major political parties, and in the broader context of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment, as perceived by young people.
Ms Vanstone did not specify which kind of emissions she was talking about. Nor whether she was referring to simple totals or ratios.
Fact Check invited her to clarify this. She said she had not been expecting to talk about emissions: “I can’t tell you that I had a particular tight construct in my head at the time,” she said.
“I think I was just making a general remark about emissions generally over a long period of time.”
Fact Check considers it reasonable to assume that her claim refers to Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions over the past 10 years — the length of time examined by the Government’s most recent report on emissions.
What others are saying
Ms Vanstone is not alone in claiming emissions in Australia are decreasing, though other speakers have been more specific.
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, also on Q&A, said carbon emissions per capita and by GDP were at their lowest levels in 28 years.
Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price also highlighted this low in a press release announcing the Government’s latest quarterly emissions data.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that total emissions had risen over the year to June 2018.
Others have also pointed to the rise in total emissions.
Labor senator Lisa Singh, another of the recent Q&A panelists, argued that “emissions have continued to go up since 2011”.
And on ABC radio the same week, Richie Merzian, the climate and energy director for think tank the Australia Institute said: “For the last four years, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing.”
The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy collects and publishes a series of reports and databases, known as the National Greenhouse Accounts.
The accounts track greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 onwards, and fulfil Australia’s international reporting obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol.
Quarterly reports, released as part of the accounts, track total emissions as well as emissions by sector, per capita and per GDP.
The latest report, released three days before Ms Vanstone’s Q&A appearance, provides estimates of Australia’s national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions up to the June quarter of 2018.
The report examines emissions produced by eight sectors: electricity, stationary energy, transport, fugitive emissions (for example, leakages), industrial processes and product use, agriculture, waste, and land use, land use change and forestry.
Emissions from electricity production are falling
The report shows emissions in the electricity sector have fallen by 3.6 per cent in the year to September 2018.
This was driven by a 13 per cent reduction in brown coal supply and a corresponding 14 per cent increase in supply derived from renewable sources, it says.
But emissions from other sectors, such as transport, have been rising.
Hugh Saddler, an honorary associate professor at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, told Fact Check:
“Significant increases in emissions from petroleum and diesel consumption in transport, and gas consumption associated with LNG, have outweighed the decrease in emissions from the electricity sector.”
What’s going on with total emissions?
Over the year to June 2018, Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions rose in each quarter, according to the report.
Specifically, seasonally adjusted total emissions rose 1.3 per cent in the June quarter and by 0.6 per cent in the year to June 2018.
While emissions have fluctuated over the past four years, they have been trending upwards since late 2014, as the graph below shows. The data shows emissions have risen 5 per cent over this time.
Emissions touched their lowest point in March 2013, but have since rebounded to 2011 levels.
Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia has committed to a reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions of between 26 per cent and 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
According to the national greenhouse audit, total emissions are down 11.7 per cent on 2005 (the Paris Agreement base year) and 7.5 per cent since 1990 (the base year for Kyoto Protocol calculations).
Why are people saying emissions are falling?
As shown above, total greenhouse emissions when measured quarterly over the past year, or by trend data over the past four years, have been rising.
So, why are some people arguing that emissions are going down?
Because, when emissions are measured per capita or per dollar of GDP, they are lower. This is because Australia is experiencing rapid population growth.
The Department of the Environment and Energy highlights this fall in both the preface to its latest quarterly greenhouse report and on its website.
The report states that emissions per capita and the emissions intensity of the Australian economy were at their lowest levels in 28 years, falling 37 per cent and 60 per cent respectively since 1990.
Are emissions per capita and per GDP useful measures?
Put simply, no.
Dr Saddler said focusing on emissions per capita was meaningless, since the measure used in international agreements was the more crucial total emissions.
“The atmosphere doesn’t care how many people are contributing to emissions; it’s the total quantity of emissions that matters,” he said.
Professor David Karoly, an internationally recognised expert on climate change, said the emissions per capita was a useful measure when it allowed for country by country comparisons.
“The Australian per capita share at the moment is higher than any other developed country in the world — higher than the US. Yes, it’s coming down, but it is still the highest.”
Both Dr Saddler and Professor Karoly confirmed the fall in emissions per capita and GDP were due to rapid population growth in Australia.
Experts assess the claim
Professor Karoly said if Amanda Vanstone’s claim was made in reference to total Australian emissions, “they are going up”.
He noted that the start of the recent rebound in emissions from mid-2014 coincided with the dumping of the carbon tax by the Abbott government in July of that year.
Professor Mark Howden, the director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute, told Fact Check: “I think it is correct to say that Australian emissions were coming down, but are now rising steadily.”
He said an argument could be made that emissions have come down, given they are lower now than at their peak between 2005 and 2008.
“However, this is a problematic argument,” he said.
“Under the current mix of policies and economic activities, emissions are clearly not coming down but instead are rising steadily.”
Pep Canadell, a senior principal research scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre, and the executive director of the Global Carbon Project, suggested that 1990 was a good reference year for gleaning a long-term view of changes to emissions.
“Good annual data only starts from 1990, which is the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol and why the Government started the good quality data then,” Dr Canadell said.
Emissions per capita have fallen 37 per cent since 1990.
However, Dr Canadell added:
“Given Ms Vanstone’s statement is present tense, I disagree [that emissions are falling]. According to the data, emissions have been going up since 2013, with ups and downs, and, if anything, accelerating recently.”
Press link for more: ABC