Last week, a Freedom of Information request from the ABC confirmed what everybody already knew: the Australian government has deliberately held back the release of embarrassing quarterly data emissions reports, even past the point of a legal Senate deadline.

Crikey explores how, and why, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor held back these reports, and how the usual suspects at The Australian help spin our increasing carbon emissions.

How Taylor ignored the Senate

The emails, obtained from the Department of Environment and Energy, demonstrate that updates to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory and a brief for Taylor were ready by at least May 21, more than a week before a senate order from October last year required they be tabled by May 31.

That report continued the Coalition’s upward trend since taking office in 2013. If you exclude the scientifically dubious, government-mandated concept of “negative emissions” from land use, land use change and forestry, the Morrison government once again hit Australia’s highest greenhouse gas emissions on record. With LULUCF, it was still our fourth annual increase.

But the figures weren’t actually published until 12am on June 6. Not on the government website, naturally, but with their friends at The Australian, who dutifully led with Taylor’s argument that Australia is not given enough credit as the now largest exporter of Liquified Natural Gas. The official report was then published around 11am on the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory (NGGI) and tabled in parliament on June 12.

Perhaps what’s most galling about the ordeal is that, with Taylor later running with the excuse that he needed extra time to “carefully consider” the data, it took the Coalition over a fortnight to go with the argument that “LNG exports alone saved global emissions equal to one-quarter of Australia’s total greenhouse gas output”.

According to Taylor, the major driver of Australia’s increased emissions — a spike in LNG mining, refining and export, resulting in increased fugitive emissions — helps displace higher-emission fuels in other countries.

Not only is that tenuous logic on its own, LNG still burns between 50-60% the amount of emissions of coal, and Taylor’s argument relies on the false assumption that Australia’s natural gas is only displacing coal — but that, as the world’s largest exporter of coal, any attempt to include exported fuel would exponentially increase Australia’s emissions.

That the Oz would run Taylor’s argument verbatim and without any kind of critical analysis may come as a surprise if you are not familiar with the paper’s previous pattern of behaviour in this arena.

How does this spin get published?

The Australian has a long history of blasting dubious, government-friendly climate figures across its front page.

In February, the national broadsheet scored something of a twofer within just three days. First, the paper led with a claim that “households will pay nearly $2 billion for rooftop solar installation subsidies this year, costing every home nearly $200 and threatening to derail Scott Morrison’s pledge to cut power bills”.

As Ketan Joshi pointed out, the instigating report both put forecasters between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion — making “nearly $2 billion” a stretch — and ignored the subsidy cost to businesses, making the real household cost closer to $34. But in a win for disinformation, those figures went on to dominate other print, radio and TV outlets for the day ahead, and everyone seemed to accept the lie and move on.

Two days later the paper parroted a leaked copy of a study by industry consultant Dr Brian Fisher, which argued that Labor’s climate policies would cost the economy $264 billion and 166,500 jobs. It did not question Fisher’s truly wild assumptions about the cost of solar, wind and storage. Nor did it include the fact that Fisher was appointed by Tony Abbott to review the Renewable Energy Target, where he ultimately recommended it be scrapped on the false assumption gas would displace coal. The Oz pushed the study again once it was officially published in May, with a similar quality of fact checking.

Looking at the numbers

The Coalition, as Crikey has covered previously, has precedent in conveniently-timed quarterly emissions reports, tending to drop them ahead of football grand finals, Christmas breaks or other public holidays. Somewhat unsurprisingly, The Australian’s June report also happily led with two of the Coalition’s other favourite “behind the headline” figures:

  • Australia’s emissions are reducing on a per capita basis, a fairly easy task considering we’re one of the highest per capita emitters on Earth
  • December 2018’s total emissions were 14% and 11.9% lower than peak year 2007 and Paris baseline 2005, respectively, when you include negative emissions from “land use, land use change and forestry” (a fairly convenient statistic that ignores mitigating policies like the carbon price).

The Oz didn’t bother fact-checking Taylor’s claim that the land sector would form an important part of the solution, a fairly obvious red herring that ignores both the fact that land use, land use change and forestry — a strained accounting system at the best of times — accounted for just “-3.6%” of Australia’s emissions, and the government’s obvious failure in addressing Australia’s largest sectors: electricity (33.2%), stationary energy (19.1%), transport (18.9%) and fugitive emissions (10.8%).

Go through any of The Australian’s other “reports” on Australia’s carbon emissions — including Taylor’s false claim that we will meet Paris’ “electricity targets” eight years early (note: this is not a thing that exists) — and you’ll find more of the same.

That, or the not-at-all imaginary illness known as “wind turbine syndrome“.

How have you seen the government avoid responsibility on emissions, and how do we hold it to greater account? Let us know your thoughts along with your full name at [email protected].

Peter Fray

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