Australia is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and could be contributing as much as 17% by 2030 if the pollution from its fossil fuel exports is factored in, research says.
Under climate accounting rules that record carbon dioxide released within a country, Australia is responsible for about 1.4% of global emissions. The analysis by science and policy institute Climate Analytics found more than twice that, another 3.6%, are a result of Australia’s coal, oil and gas exports.
If all proposed fossil fuel developments went ahead, including Adani’s Carmichael mine, other proposed coal developments in the Galilee Basin and liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in Western Australia, and other countries adopted policies consistent with the Paris agreement, Australia could be linked to up to 17% of carbon pollution.
The Australian Conservation Foundation, which commissioned the research, said this scenario showed Australia was on a path to being one of the worst contributors to a climate emergency.
“Australia is now the number one exporter of both coal and gas and we are scheduled to push that off the charts in the next 10 years. We are looking to become an emissions super-power,” the foundation’s Gavan McFadzean said. “We are fortunate to have many of our emissions counted elsewhere but that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for them.”
There is no likelihood greenhouse accounting rules will change to reflect pollution embedded in exports but the emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, has suggested Australia should get credit for the role he says the booming LNG industry is playing in lowering global emissions by displacing coal in Asia. Canada has made a similar claim and said it should be allowed under the Paris agreement.
Taylor has not said if emissions from Australia’s coal exports should also be considered under this approach.
Energy analysts say there is little evidence Australian LNG is displacing coal. A report last week by the government’s chief economist found in Japan, Australia’s biggest LNG market, gas was expected to face increasing competition from emissions-free nuclear and renewable energy.
The Climate Analytics report says Australia’s support for new fossil fuel developments is at odds with its commitment to the 2015 Paris agreementgoals of keeping global heating well below 2C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5C. Scientists say meeting the Paris goals will require fossil fuel emissions to peak soon, then decline rapidly. Average global temperatures are already about 1C hotter than pre-industrial levels.
Australia provides nearly 30% of coal and more than 20% of gas traded on global markets. Export earnings from the industries topped $117bn last financial year.
In the wake of the Coalition’s election victory, both the government and opposition are supporting the opening of the Galilee coal basin in central Queensland, starting with the long-stalled Adani Carmichael mine. Coalition and Labor senators last week voted for a motion to this effect.
Six mining proposals in the Galilee have been approved, but none has begun construction. Analysts have questioned whether these projects are viable given the lack of existing infrastructure, the cost of transporting the commodity hundreds of kilometres to an export port and uncertainty about coal’s future as the world moves to cleaner energy sources.
While Australia’s emissions have risen each year since 2015, government greenhouse reports emphasise that per capita carbon pollution has fallen to its lowest level in 29 years. Climate Analytics says Australia remains one of the world’s highest emitters under this measure and if exported emissions were included the per head figure would leap from about 20 tonnes to nearly 70 tonnes a year each.
Other countries that would have an increased responsibility for global emissions if fossil fuel exports were counted against the nation of origin would include Russia, the US, several countries in the Middle East and Indonesia.