The Truth About Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Noel Castree and Karen Renkema-Lang

In recent months there’s been much talk about our so-called ‘post-truth era’. Wilful ignorance of the truth and the promotion of patently false claims have, rightly, become a cause of concern among many political analysts, media watchers and others. However, let’s not forget that another, much older problem confronts anyone seeking to understand the world in which we live: namely, the selective reporting and use of evidence. This is the ‘salad bar’ approach to truth. The evidence reported may be valid, but it only paints a partial – and sometimes, absent other evidence – a misleading picture of the realities it supposedly sheds light on.

A case in point is Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and related sequestration levels. Australia’s contribution to the problem of anthropogenic climate change continues to command considerable media attention, and – if the problem were to be taken seriously – has very large and immediate implications for government policy, business behaviour and people’s consumption practices. Yet the precise nature of this contribution remains unclear to many people because of two things. First, there is a plethora of official statistics about emissions and sequestration levels. They are reported by various national, sub-national and international bodies. Second, this richness of credible data provides anyone wanting to talk about the climate change issue in Australia – indeed, in most countries – a chance to confuse (knowingly or innocently) those with whom they wish to communicate.

Consider the following example of untruthful and selective reporting by a senior member of the national government. “… I would challenge you to indicate if there’s any other country that’s achieved a greater reduction in the intensity of their emissions per unit of GDP over that period of history [1990 to the present]. Any other country”. So said the then Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, to the Australian Emissions Reduction Summit in Melbourne, on Wednesday May 6, 2015. His statement was widely reported in the news media the same week. The statement was bordering on false. ‘Emissions intensity’ refers to how much CO₂ equivalent a country emits for each unit of output (for instance, per $US of GDP). Australia’s emissions intensity has indeed dropped significantly compared to other countries over the last quarter century, but not nearly as much as Hunt claimed. However, let’s suppose Hunt’s claim had been true because his data source had indeed demonstrated that Australia is a world leader in reducing emissions intensity. The problem is that this would not have been the whole truth; the elimination of a single untruth would not have been sufficient to make Hunt’s claim accurate. Information about emissions intensity sheds only selective light on a complex story that must be told by reporting several empirical measures at once.

So what are the measures? They relate to GHG emissions and the sequestration of GHGs, the balance of which is net emissions. Accounting for net emissions is a complex business. Gross emissions cover the much discussed carbon dioxide, but also methane plus nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride. The emitted volumes of each vary annually, as does the ‘warming potential’ of each gas and its residence time in the atmosphere once emitted. The source of emissions also varies over time, with energy generation still being a key contributor in Australia while some other activities are no longer so important (notably land use change and forestry). Sequestration efforts take GHGs out of the atmosphere and store them for varying periods of time. As with gross emissions, gross removals of GHG can be estimated in terms of weight (e.g. gigatonnes) or in relative percentage terms compared to previous years; they can also be calculated on a per capita basis. Because Australia references its GHG emissions to the wider global effort to mitigate climate change, it is possible to measure the country’s relative and absolute performance in relation to other countries. At the sub-national scale, it is also possible to report the emissions of states and territories. In short, there are numerous ways to report any country’s progress in reducing GHG emissions and only a mixture of measures can paint an accurate picture. Australia’s progress simply cannot be understood by cherry picking information about emissions intensity, or any other single measure of performance. What is required is comprehensive information about net emissions over time.

A key challenge for people wanting to understand Australia’s record on climate change mitigation is that even official reporting bodies do not always present the full suite of measures available to report on GHG emissions trends. In other words, it’s not just the second hand, selective reporting by the likes of Greg Hunt that’s at issue. Consider last June’s quarterly update of Australia’s GHG inventory, published by the Department of Environment & Energy. It’s preface declared that “Australia’s annual total emissions for the year to June 2016 are estimated to be 536.5 Mt CO2-e. This … is the fourth lowest emissions level since 2000. It is also 2.9 per cent below emissions 2000 (552.7 Mt CO2-e), and 10.7 per cent below emissions in 2005 (602.6 Mt CO2-e).” This ‘good news’ framing is a highly selective presentation of the Australian emissions story. Some might call it positively misleading. Even though the update goes on to present a range of emissions data, by headlining emissions reductions the Department risks misdirecting readers not minded to delve into the report details.

So what is the truth about Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017? In a nutshell, gross emissions have remained consistent since 1990 at about 540 Mt per annum CO₂ equivalent. Per capita gross emissions of CO₂ equivalent remain high compared with other developed countries. Gross GHG emissions from the energy sector have increased around 50% since 1990, even as emissions from land use, land use change and forestry have declined by nearly 100%. Yes, emissions intensity has improved since 1990; but Australia currently lacks large scale sequestration projects so its net emissions remain positive. It’s worth noting that none of this information includes the ‘offshored’ emissions Australia ‘creates’ by both importing goods from overseas and exporting ‘embodied GHGs’ (e.g. in the form of coal). It’s worth noting too that precise accounting for net GHG emissions is very challenging in a practical sense. The country’s net emissions are possibly higher than reported in the official statistics.

Does all this amount to a set of ‘inconvenient truths’ that can we be wielded in the fight against both ‘post-truth’ subterfuge and ‘salad bar’ reporting of Australia’s record on climate change mitigation? Not exactly. As Nick Enfield reminds us, writing in The Conversation, facts never speak for themselves. For ‘matters of fact’ to become ‘facts that matter’, contextual information is essential: without it, evidence lacks proper meaning and becomes abstract ‘information’. In the present case, the recently signed Paris Agreement temperature target and the so-called global ‘carbon budget’ that is available are very salient.  The target is to keep atmospheric temperature ‘well below’ a 2 degree Celsius increase over pre-industrial levels. Knowing the relationships between GHG concentrations and temperature increase, scientists have been able to calculate the net volume of GHGs that can still be discharged so as to avoid exceeding 2 degrees warming. Scientists have also calculated that the national emissions reduction targets of Australia and all other developed economies are insufficient to avoid such warming. Only when understood in the context of the Paris temperature target, of Australia’s ‘share’ of the world carbon budget and the tame emissions reduction targets of the present national government can we truly appreciate the factual ‘truth’ about the country’s current and recent GHG emissions.

In our world today, environmental problems are proliferating and escalating in seriousness. Yet understanding the precise nature of these problems, let alone their implications for governments, businesses and civil societies, remains a very serious challenge – even in our supposed ‘information age’ where people have almost unlimited access to data. We need literacy and honesty in the reporting and interpretation of factual information about climate change and other large-scale, complex problems. Sadly, in a world of information-overload and short attention spans, ignorance, half-truths and misunderstandings are more likely than not to shape collective understandings of the so-called ‘grand challenges’ of our century.


Noel Castree is the Director of the Australian Centre for Cultural and Environmental Research (AUSCCER). You can read his latest piece in The Conversation here.

Karen Renkema-Lang is a consultant who has provided strategic policy, ICT and project assurance services across a range of federal government departments.

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