Renewables gains no match for emissions, audit says

Smoke pours from industrial chimneys into sky (audit)

New research by The Australia Institute shows that while Australia is benefiting from its highest share of renewables in the energy market ever, our emissions reductions from electricity generation is still worse than in countries like the US, UK and Japan, and emissions from Australia’s other energy combustion activities are rising. 

Reductions in electricity emissions achieved through renewables are also being cancelled out thanks to the commissioning of new Liquified Natural Gas plants, estimated to have increased Australia’s annual emissions by around 15 Mt CO2-e.

The Australia Institute Climate & Energy Program has released their latest National Energy Emissions Audit, analysing the electricity sector over the previous months.

Related article: Solar boom, pandemic drive down Australia’s carbon emissions

Key findings include:

  • In the 12 months to July 2021 the total share of renewable generation in the National Electricity Market (NEM) was above 30 per cent for the first time ever (on an annual basis). On a month-by-month basis, it was above 30 per cent in every month from September 2020 to March 2021.
    • It is possible the share of wind and solar could be greater if operators were not curtailed on days of high output (ie. particularly sunny or windy days) either by the system operator (AEMO) or of their own choice.
  • Despite the rapid growth in wind and solar generation, Australia’s resulting reduction in emissions for electricity generation has been lower than reductions by USA, Japan, UK and the EU from 2011 to 2019. 
    • For all other energy combustions emissions Australia and the United States have significantly increased their emissions while Japan, the EU and the UK have all achieved emission reductions.
  • Emissions reductions in electricity have been partially lost by the commissioning of no less than seven new Liquified Natural Gas plants in Australia (between 2016 and 2018) estimated to have increased Australia’s annual emissions by up to about 15 Mt CO2-e.
  • While road transport fuel consumption has dropped during the pandemic, it is already creeping back up and there is no clear evidence of a significant change in consumption of either electricity or gas in any month since the start of the pandemic. 

“It’s concerning that the electricity sector, Australia’s highest emitting sector in our economy, is not transitioning to clean energy at the same pace as US, UK, Japan and the EU. This is unforgivable when you consider the land area and solar resources we have compared to these countries,” audit author Dr Hugh Saddler said.  

“The latest IPCCC report makes clear that there is an urgent need for countries like Australia to significantly reduce their emissions this decade. It is hard to see how this can possibly include expanding gas production, consumption and exports which are undoing much of the progress we are making thanks to renewables.”

Related article: UN urges Australia to speed up transition from coal

“The drop in transport emissions is no cause for celebration as it will be short-lived given there are no national climate and transport policies. It’s only a matter of time until the pollution from our cars, trucks and planes will overtake emissions from electricity, currently the highest emitting sector, said Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute.

“Ahead of the UN Climate Conference in November, the Australian government will come under pressure to take greater climate action. There is no shortage of opportunities in the energy sector including advancing the retirement of gas and coal power stations, setting targets for electric vehicles, setting CO2 emission standards for vehicles and incentivising home batteries and electric appliances.”

The Australia Institute’s National Energy Emissions Audit, authored by Dr Hugh Saddler, can be found here.