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What’s happening with the climate crisis and heat-trapping emissions in Australia
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What’s happening with the climate crisis and heat-trapping emissions in Australia

Australian government data says national greenhouse gas emissions have come down steadily over the past two decades and are now 29% less than in 2005.

But another calculation, based on the government’s data, says the emissions that matter have barely moved, dropping only 2.5% over that time.

Some analysts believe the second calculation is the true measure of Australia’s heat-trapping pollution – and that it reveals how little has been achieved in cutting CO2.

What should we make of this? In the charts below we explain Australia’s progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the latest on what’s happening with the climate crisis.

What you need to know to read these charts

  • The Albanese government has legislated targets of cutting emissions to 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050
  • Climate scientists have said Australia should be making deeper cuts by 2030 – at least 50% and up to 75%. In one chart below we show what setting the 75% target would mean
  • The Climate Change Authority recommended in 2014 that the government set a target equivalent to a 45% and 65% cut by 2030 compared with 2005. The Coalition instead set a target of a 26-28% cut. We use the 65% target in a chart below to show the emissions that could have been avoided if it had been adopted
  • Official projections are released by the government yearly. They model the impact of current and previous policies to estimate future emissions
  • Progress on climate can also be measured with a carbon budget, which calculates a “fair share” of total emissions for a country to avoid 1.5C or 2C of warming. Our carbon budget is based on work by the Climate Targets Panel, which says Australia can emit up to 10.1bn tonnes of greenhouse gas between 2013 and 2050 if it is to play its part in keeping global heating well below 2C.

Australia’s ‘fair share’ of emissions

Australia has a legislated 2030 emissions target: a 43% cut compared with 2005 levels. Government projections released in late 2023 suggest the country is slightly behind the pace necessary to meet this target.

But the analysis doesn’t answer a key question: is 43% enough?

The carbon budget countdown clock below shows how long Australia has left on the current trajectory until it has emitted its “fair share” of future emissions.

You can toggle between calculations of Australia’s fair share in limiting global heating to 1.5C and 2C, the two thresholds mentioned goals in the landmark 2015 Paris agreement.

For 1.5C, the country is likely to have emitted its fair share before 2030. For 2C, it is likely to reach that level between 2030 and 2040. Scientists warn there will be a significant and devastating difference in the damage caused by heating of 1.5C and 2C.

Carbon countdown clock
How long until Australia uses up its ‘fair share’ of the carbon budget?
Carbon budget:

1.5C

2C

years, days, hrs, mins, secs

Until we will exceed our ‘fair share’ carbon budget, if our emissions stay as they are now

Tonnes carbon emitted since 2013

Tonnes carbon budget remaining

0 tonnes emitted since you’ve been on this page

What Australia emits

According to the latest national greenhouse gas inventory, national emissions decreased by 0.5% in the year to December 2023.

As mentioned above, the government says over the longer term – since 2005 – national emissions are down 29%.

But this is only true if you include changes in emissions from forests and the land in the calculation, and this is a contentious point.

You can see this by toggling in the chart above to exclude emissions from what is known in carbon accounting as “land use, land-use change and forestry”, or LuluCF.

Australia’s quarterly greenhouse gas emissions and projections compared to targets
Showing Australia’s actual quarterly emissions (in millions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), the trend since 2005 and lines representing 43% and 75% reductions from 2005 levels. Use the toggles to include or exclude land use change (LuluCF) and expand the chart to show since 2005

Show since 2005

Exclude landuse

Emissions from forests and the land are affected by natural factors and work on a different cycle to industrial pollution. They are also difficult to estimate.

Some scientists say including them in national emissions accounts masks what is happening with fossil fuel use, the main driver of the climate crisis.

Some countries don’t include LuLuCF emissions in their accounting. Australia does. If it didn’t, its greenhouse gas inventory would tell a different story.

Emissions from across the Australian economy (including electricity, major industry, transport, agriculture and waste) are down only 2.5% since 2005.

Analysts say little of this change in LuLuCF is due to climate policy. Some was caused by changes in state laws to reduce land-clearing for farming and some was due to a decline in native forest logging.

And there is significant uncertainty about just how much emissions from these sources have changed.

Government estimates of Australia’s historic emissions are adjusted each year. This is particularly the case for LuLuCF, which is difficult to estimate.

The government keeps revising Australia’s historic emissions
Showing historic greenhouse gas emissions by year the dataset was released. Data is in millions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent

The chart above shows the changes over the past nine years.

Analysts have noted that the revisions have made it significantly easier for Australia to meet its emissions reduction targets than it otherwise would have been.

The next chart shows the change in emissions in all sectors other than LuLuCF since 2005.

Pollution from electricity generation has fallen in the past year, continuing a long-term trend. It was 2.8% lower than the previous year due to solar and wind energy displacing coal and gas.

Fugitive emissions from coal and gas extraction were down 2.1% and emissions from stationary energy – fossil fuels in industry other than electricity and transport – dipped by 0.8%. Both have started to come down after rising substantially since 2005.

But emissions from transport jumped 3.6%, in part because people were driving and flying more after Covid-19 restrictions. They are rising far more than emissions from any other sector.

The following chart shows an estimate of how much other countries emit when they burn Australian fossil fuels.

China and Japan have been Australia’s biggest markets for coal and gas, but China has recently had an informal ban on importing Australian coal in recent years.

Emissions from burning Australia’s black coal are mostly not reflected in national emissions accounts.

The bulk of the coal is sold and burnt overseas, as the following chart shows.

How Australia compares to the world

Australia’s emissions reduction target for 2030 has increased since the Albanese government was elected in May 2022, but it remains behind most other similar countries.

2030 emissions pledges by jurisdiction
Shows the percentage reduction on 2005 emissions pledged by country or region, based on submissions to the UNFCCC. Australia’s target includes land use change (LuluCF)



This chart shows how emissions have changed year-by-year from some developed countries since 2000. Emissions from LuluCF (landuse change) are not included – reflecting that many countries do not use them.

Red denotes increases and blue shows decreases. Australia’s emissions mostly increased or stayed about the same until Covid-19 hit.

Yearly change in greenhouse gases emitted, by country
Shows the increase or decrease in CO2 equivalent from the previous year since the year 2000

This next chart shows how much different countries emit per capita. The deeper the red, the more the pollution.

Per capita fossil fuel emissions by country
Countries are grouped into quantiles by the level of emissions per capita. Data is round to two decimal places

Fuel selector:

Global heating is here

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says the average land surface temperature across the country has already warmed by about 1.5C since 1910.

The graph below shows the change in average Australian temperatures since early last century.

The next chart shows the change in daily average global temperatures over time. It is derived from a model based on observational data from weather stations, balloons, satellites and other sources.

It shows 2023 was a record-breaking year for average heat, and 2024 has so far been hotter again.

Average global temperatures
Showing worldwide average air temperatures in degrees celcius. Mean is for the period 1991-2020. Last updated 10 June 2024

The next chart shows sea surface temperatures from the past couple of decades, using the daily average.

Scientists say the ocean absorbs most of the heat – up to 90% – reflected back to the Earth by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Global sea surface temperatures
Showing worldwide, daily sea surface temperatures in degrees celcius. Mean is for the period 1991-2020. Last updated 20 July 2023

The next chart uses satellite data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center to show the extent of sea ice (in millions of kilometres) in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

The past 18 months have been well below anything previously recorded.

Daily Antarctic sea ice extent
Showing the extent of Antarctic sea ice in millions of square kilometres. Last updated 20 July 2023

Finally, here is a look at recent extreme events that scientists have found were more likely to occur – or were more likely to be severe – due to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

This article is being regularly updated to reflect new data releases. Any significant corrections made to this or previous versions of the article will be footnoted in line with the Guardian’s editorial policy.

Notes and methods:

  • The trend in the quarterly National Greenhouse Gas Inventories is an exponentially weighted moving average from all data from June 2005 onwards.

  • Percentage decline since 2005 based on a comparison of the emissions in the year to the latest quarter compared to the emissions in the year to June 2005 and does not account for seasonality.

  • Emissions values are based on tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases (AR5 values).

  • Carbon clock uses the “fair share” carbon budget as a baseline, originally calculated as 10,400,000,000 tonnes of CO2-e between 2013 and 2050.

  • Guardian Australia uses the quarterly National Greenhouse Gas Inventories to calculate emissions since 2021, creating a daily average from the previous year to calculate how much longer before the fair share threshold is breached.

  • Carbon clock uses one second ticks based on the greenhouse gas emissions from the previous year.

  • Per capita greenhouse gas emissions by country are based on the latest release of the Global Carbon Budget from the Global Carbon Project.

  • Estimated combustion greenhouse gas emissions from Australian fossil fuels are calculated using production and export volumes from the Australian Resources and Energy Quarterly.

  • Domestic consumption of black coal is estimated by subtracting annual exports from annual production.

  • Volumes of fossil fuel exports are converted into energy units using factors from the Australian Energy Statistics.

  • Emissions factors for energy from fossil fuels are calculated using figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  • Thanks to Tim Baxter for providing feedback on several graphics. Any errors remain the fault of the authors.

Source: theguardian.com