Carbon emissions approach pre-pandemic levels

Global carbon emissions are close to returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to this year’s Annual Global Carbon Budget from the Canberra-based Global Carbon Project. In a briefing with the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC), ANU professor Frank Jotzo, who was not involved in creating the budget, and CSIRO’s Pep Canadell explained the results and future projections.

Global carbon emissions plummeted by 5.4% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to reduced travel, stay-at-home orders and shuttered production for the global supply chain. But as COP26 reaches its third day of negotiations, with some major commitments already announced, the Global Carbon Budget reveals that we are almost right back where we started in terms of global emissions.

How much carbon do we have left to use?

  • 1.5°C warming – 420 billion tonnes remaining – 11 years
  • 2°C warming – 1270 billion tonnes remaining – 32 years

The ‘carbon budget’ is essentially how much carbon we have left to use before we exceed 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. According to Canadell, we have about 420 billion tonnes remaining before we reach 1.5°C of warming – that gives us about 11 years on current emissions trends. Meanwhile, we have around 1270 billion tonnes left before we hit the 2°C warming mark in roughly 32 years, based on current emissions projections.

How is Australia tracking?

Between 2019 and 2020, Australia’s electricity emissions trended downward. Transport emissions plummeted in that time thanks to stay-at-home orders and border closures, but those emissions will likely return to pre-pandemic levels once COVID-19 restrictions release their grip on the country. The rest of Australia’s emissions experienced limited change.

More broadly, emissions in Australia have fallen in recent decades, but only slowly, and Australia is still very reliant on coal, oil and gas, according to Canadell, which frustrates the shift to renewable energy.

“You can see the challenge [to renewables], particularly with a growing trend in gas and oil,” he says.

Jotzo adds: “There’s plenty of opportunity to make the shift from fossil fuels to renewables and clean energy sources in general, but not enough action just yet.”

And while Australia’s emissions have fallen in recent years, Jotzo says reductions since 2005 are almost entirely thanks to something known as land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).

LULUCF emissions can soar when land is cleared for agriculture or industry, because the plant matter and soil organisms that sequester the carbon are destroyed. Conversely, LULUCF measures for mitigation involve using land as a carbon “sink” – a place to sequester atmospheric carbon – like a forest.

Jotzo says Australia’s LULUCF emissions have declined as less land is cleared and the management of existing land is done with carbon sinking in mind. The rest of Australia’s emissions sources have tapered slowly and almost imperceptibly.

According to Jotzo, this means we are missing untapped opportunities to accelerate our decarbonisation.

“If we put our shoulder to the wheel policy-wise and harvest all of these unused opportunities, then a 50% reduction by 2030 certainly is within reach,” he says. The Federal Government’s current ambition is to slash emissions by 35% from 2005 levels by 2030.

What are the solutions for fast-tracking Australia’s emissions reductions?

“As soon as you put a price on carbon emissions, then you’re accelerating the transition,” says Jotzo. But carbon pricing in Australia is a notoriously thorny issue that has led to the downfall of multiple prime ministers.

“But that’s not the only thing that can be done,” says Jotzo. “What’s preventing a faster transition to renewables? Part of it is uncertainty about future revenue from wind and solar parks, and that can in part be fixed by market reform, so investors need greater predictability as to market settings over the coming decades.

“And secondly, infrastructure. Often the bottleneck is now a lack in transmission capacity from the areas of the country where we are ready to build large-scale wind and solar – there is a congestion of the network. So that infrastructure investment really needs to be sped up, because we know we will need it.”

The methane problem

One of the major sticking points at COP26 has been methane emissions, and in particular Australia’s refusal to join with most other nations in attendance in a commitment to reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

“Methane is a short-lived and potent greenhouse gas,” says Jotzo. “It does its damage in terms of global warming over a very short period of time, and so reducing methane emission translates into less global warming more quickly.

“So when you think of it as an emergency situation, we really need to hit the brakes.”

But Australia will not commit to a specific methane reduction target, with Energy Minister Angus Taylor refusing to make sector-specific commitments.

In Australia, methane emissions come from leaks from the oil and gas industry, and agriculture, particularly cattle husbandry.

Jotzo says that to reduce methane emissions in Australia, there’d need to be wide-scale tightening of leaks and venting in the oil and gas industry, and a shift to smaller herds of cattle and sheep. But reducing our meat consumption would require financial incentives, something the Federal Government is unlikely to give.

China not on track to reduce emissions rapidly

According to Canadell, China is the only nation globally to have actually increased its emissions in 2020, despite the effects of the pandemic. As a major global polluter, China’s emissions are of major concern.

According to Jotzo, there are major improvements being made.

“You’re getting a lot more renewable energy in the system, [and] there’s a reduction in heavy industrial activities such as basic steelmaking because the massive infrastructure build-up in China is slowing down,” he says.

“But at the same time, the economy is growing, and that provides a continued push for more energy consumption. So, China’s emissions are sort of roughly on a plateau.”

This is in line with China’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – its commitment to emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement. China’s NDC is to peak its emissions before 2030, and see them trend downward in the following decade.

“From the point of view of a good global climate-change outcome, you’d really want to see that accelerate, to see China pull even harder and get on the steeply downward slope in the 2020s,” Jotzo says.

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