electric car emissions reduction
Then Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg drives an electric Mitsubishi car outside Parliament House (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Electricity generation accounted for 181.5 million tonnes of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions last year, or 34% of the latest record-breaking round of figures. It’s easily the country’s most carbon polluting sector, and the only one we can claim to have at least made a (small) dent in. But what of the remaining 66% of emissions?

While a 100% renewable grid should absolutely be the priority, and could at least theoretically be done by the early 2030s, the fact that emissions jumped 1.4% last year begs the question: what other sectors could Australia be looking at for improvement?

Transport

Transport is Australia’s second-highest polluter and its emissions jumped 2.1% last year. So how far off are those electric cars everyone’s always going on about?

Australia’s lack of charging infrastructure and affordable models meant that electric vehicles accounted for just 2284 sales last year, or 0.2% of the local market (for comparison, Norway hit 20%). Recent NRMA and Electric Vehicle Council policy proposals recommend government support for everything from new chargers, government fleets, industry subsidies and joint ventures.

While the federal government has just committed $6 million to new recharging stations, an ongoing senate inquiry has exposed general disinterest at a federal level. There’s more substantial action from states and territories, notably ACT’s plans for 100% electric government fleets and Victoria’s solar-powered tram network.

What about commercially viable electric planes? They’re trickier, but comingBut even outside of electric vehicles, Australia is one of the only OECD countries to not have greenhouse gas emissions standards for existing options. As the Climate Council reported in September, the Coalition has sat on a perfectly good light vehicle emissions standard for four years now that, in terms of fuel efficiency, could save $8500 over a vehicle’s lifetime.

Finally, the Climate Council recommends shifting money from roads to public transport, and points to a Houston case study for how bus networks can be transformed from limited inner-city routes to a more practical, web-like grid network.

Stationary energy excluding electricity

Coming in at number three, emissions from fuels burnt directly for manufacturing, mining, residential and commercial purposes rose 4.6% last year. The main source here is gas, and the overall increase was largely due to mining emissions from a 25.4% jump in LNG exports.

However, according to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, 24/7 renewables such as biogas, geothermal and solar thermal could power industrial processes at less than a quarter of the current price of gas if made commercially available. They might not be cost-competitive with existing sources, but neither was large-scale solar before ARENA got involved.  

In a report from June, the Alternative Technology Agency also found that, with advances in heat pump hot water systems, split-system air-conditioners and LED lighting, new home owners are currently $9000-$16,000 better off over 10 years by replacing gas with a 5KW solar system. Work is also being done (again, at a state level) to expand solar hot water rebates.

Agriculture

Our fourth largest sector, emissions from enteric fermentation (livestock burps and farts), manure management, rice cultivation and other agricultural processes rose 2.1% last year, largely because of an increase in cattle.

Of all the sectors, agriculture appears to be the most difficult to decarbonise, especially considering farmers are already facing historic droughts. The otherwise controversial Emissions Reduction Fund does however list carbon farming strategies such as cattle herd management, methane destruction from piggeries, and feed changes. If you’re looking for small-scale solutions, a recent Science article found that rejecting meat and dairy products is the most effective lifestyle change a person can take in reducing environmental impacts.

Fugitive emissions

Australia’s fifth-largest sector refers to emissions leaked from producing, processing, storing and transporting coal, crude oil and natural gas. The sector jumped a whopping 12.9% last year, largely thanks to the liquified natural gas boom creating 18.7% more fugitive emissions.

The obvious answer here is to leave fossil fuels in the ground, with the also obvious counter being Australia’s economic reliance on exports (including incredibly detrimental gas contracts). It’s why most of the states are, for once, just as culpable as the federal government.

But Australia’s status as the world’s number one coal exporter, and fourth largest for LNG, is partially why were just voted the worst performing country on climate action. It also increases the economic risk of stranded assets, and underscores our need for new exports (g’day hydrogen).

Industrial processes and product use

Coming in sixth, byproducts of chemical, metal, mineral processing and the consumption of synthetic greenhouse gasses jumped 3.2% last year.

This was partially due to an increase in iron and steel production, which British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta’s company GFG already demonstrates can be processed with renewable-powered furnaces and recycled minerals. Ditto for cement: the largest global industrial polluter.

Secondly, the sector saw an increase in hydrofluorocarbons products, primarily used in refrigeration and air conditioning. These were implemented as substitutes for ozone-destroying substances. Australia is now part of a global effort to phase out HFCs.

Waste

At just 2% of total emissions, methane from waste rose just 0.2% last year. While anyone who’s seen War on Waste knows we need better waste management strategies, Australia also has 130 landfills already burning methane to generate electricity and a number of biogas facilities.

Land use, land use change and forestry

Forests and agricultural lands used a net-sink of greenhouse gasses and, at -4% of the Australian inventory, “grew” 5.2% last year. While caring for land is obviously important and offers some agricultural strategies, using LULUCF as a negative for total emissions is also seen as kind of a cop-out.

With thanks to the Climate Council’s senior energy and climate solutions analyst Petra Stock for explaining some of the bigger, scarier scientific concepts.

Peter Fray

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