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Greenhouse emissions stable over decade as GDP grew 31%

There has been no growth in greenhouse gas emissions in Australia over the last decade, despite economic growth of 31% over…

Steam and other emissions rise from a Sydney factory. The new report identified potential for nearly three times more emissions reduction activity than is currently being observed. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

There has been no growth in greenhouse gas emissions in Australia over the last decade, despite economic growth of 31% over the same period, a new report has found.

The findings show that conversion to a green economy need not be painful and is already underway in Australian industry.

The report, released today by Monash University research unit ClimateWorks, said stable emissions levels despite economic growth was achieved through reduced deforestation, increased tree-planting, a big boost in industry energy efficiency and sharp drops in power emissions.

However, a lot more needs to be done if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, the study found.

Despite the progress so far, Australia is on track to achieve only about 40% of the reductions needed to meet its minimum national target of reducing domestic emissions by 5% below year 2000 emissions levels by 2020.

Report co-author and head of research at ClimateWorks, Amandine Denis, said previous climate science research has found that Australia should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% below year 2000 levels by 2020 to keep levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases 450 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent or lower.

Keeping atmospheric greenhouse gases at that level provides a chance to limit the global increase in temperature to 2°C, previous projections have shown.

“What our analysis has found is this is achievable in Australia with domestic activity with technology available today. We can do more than what is currently being aimed for,” said Ms Denis.

The researchers identified potential for nearly three times more emissions reduction activity than is currently being observed.

“The large areas of potential abatement are mostly in the power and land sectors: by replacing further coal generated power plants with renewables and gas, reducing deforestation and increasing afforestation further and increasing energy efficiency in the building sector,” she said.

Emissions stable – now, to reduce them

Pep Canadell, Global Carbon Project executive-director at CSIRO, welcomed the report.

“The report brings good news and shows that the implementation of key energy and land use policies are beginning to pay off, and that it is possible to decouple economic growth from emissions growth,” said Dr Canadell, who was not involved in the study.

“There is an opportunity to explore in detail which policies have worked and which haven’t based on their contributions to the stabilisation of emissions and economic growth. It is important to realise that, ultimately, we need to achieve the complete decarbonisation of the energy system, and this requires the continued development of new policy to address the increasingly harder components of the transformation required.”

Chris Riedy, Associate Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, said the findings align with data from Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

“Australia’s total emissions have been relatively stable over the last decade. Reductions in emissions from land clearing and waste have offset ongoing increases in emissions from other sectors. The recent decline in electricity demand and associated emissions has been really important in halting the overall growth in emissions,” said Associate Professor Reidy, who was not involved in the new study.

“Now that Australia has successfully halted the growth in its total emissions, it’s time to start actually reducing emissions. The report shows that Australia has the potential to aim higher than its current target of a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. A commitment to a 25% reduction in emissions by 2020 is feasible, is more consistent with what climate scientists are telling us is needed and would reinvigorate international climate negotiations.”

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      For those that didn't click' Read more':

      The answer is that under Labor's plan our domestic 1990 emissions for our first world economy will increase by 43% by 2020.

      Not a 5% cut - a 43% increase!

    2. Brett Bailey

      Self Employed

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Michael - I note this from the UNFCCC - Kyoto Protocol
      "Australia committed to limit the growth of our emissions to 8 per cent above 1990 levels over the period 2008-2012 (the ‘first commitment period’). Australia is on track to meet this target.

      Australia along with 36 other countries, will also participate in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, ending in 2020. The Minister announced this decision in a speech in November 2012 and announcement in December 2012. Australia’s Kyoto target is consistent with the 2020 target of a 5 per cent reduction in 2020 compared to 2000 levels.

      So I don't know what you are talking about - it would seem that Australia is going in the right direction - so where are you coming from?

    3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Brett Bailey

      The purpose of the first Kyoto protocol was for the western world, which at that time had emitted most of the carbon and was rich enough to take action, to set an example. Thus it was very important to try to get all the western countries on board.

      The Howard government did not believe in climate change, and whilst most western countries were agreeing to cuts their emissions the Howard government argued that Australia 'was different' and we should be allowed to increase our emissions by 8.0…

      Read more
  1. Urs Baumgartner

    Consultant for Environment and Sustainability

    I am wondering if you could be a bit more specific about the "emissions did not increase". If I follow the link to the national GHG inventory, then I can see that the total emissions were 493 GtCO2e in 2000, whereas they increased to 548.7 in 2010. That is a 11.1% increase in only 10 years.
    You also did not mention that per capita emissions in Australia were six times higher than on world average!
    (see here

    I don't believe that there is any reason to make people believe that things are OK!!! A rather disturbing report in light of what is really happening. Climate change is not a joke, it is happening, and we are part of it!

    1. Ben Heard

      Director, ThinkClimate Consulting

      In reply to Urs Baumgartner


      Never seen that particular tool before from WRI.

      See here for the Australian accounts

      Steady since 1990, accounting for the massive free kick from cutting land use, which Jeremy rightly points out is in danger of being reversed.

      I too find the tone of the article concerning. Australia has done little to change the fundamentals of it's economy and we remain massive per capita emitters.

    2. Chris Riedy

      Associate Professor at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Urs Baumgartner

      Your most recent link is to Australia's total emissions excluding land use, land use change and forestry. If you exclude these emissions, then the overall trend over the last decade is indeed upwards, although it flattens over the last few years.

      However, if you include land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), then the trend is much flatter. For example, total emissions in 1990 were 558 Mt CO2-e and are only 563 in 2011. The latest inventory figures ( don't include LULUCF figures for all years, which is a bit of a pain. That's why the recent trend has been a bit hidden and why the report discussed in this article is a useful one.

      But I totally agree that this is not grounds for complacency. We need to reduce to zero emissions by 2050. We've barely begun that task. Stabilising emissions is a great start but it's only a start.

      Best, Chris

    3. Urs Baumgartner

      Consultant for Environment and Sustainability

      In reply to Chris Riedy


      Thanks for the explanation. I'm still confused, since the WRI data show completely different figures. According to WRI the 2010 emissions were 587.5 Mt excl. LUCF or 736.6 (incl. LUCF) while in 1990 they were 427.0 and 420.2 respectively.

      Anyway. That also depends on the data source and methods used.
      I guess we all agree on what needs to be done.


  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Since the DCEE climate factbox says the aim is cut emissions 80% between 2000 and 2050 I suggest the annual target is 1.6%. Thus a decade requires a cut of 16%. We've been stuck on emissions around the 550 Mt mark for two decades when we should be around the 450 mark. Never mind the fact our exported coal and LNG generates nearly 800 Mt of CO2.

    Since 20th century economic growth is strongly correlated with energy use, mostly carbon based, it will require an economic paradigm shift to change that in the 21st century. Our present course won't achieve that.

  3. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    I rather agree with all the comments already made - no excuse to become complacent - all we'v ereally managed to achieve is to be a bit less bad!

    Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see that you can have a decade of significant economic growth coupled with relatively stable emissions. I still doubt that you can achieve anything like full decoupling - nonetheless, it does at least demonstrate that you could maintain a perfectly successful economy (preferably steady state) while simultaneously reducing emissions fairly significantly.

    So much for the 'we'll all be rooned!' rhetoric in certain circles (no need to name them - I think we all know).

    1. Barry Van Es

      Financial Planner

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Am I missing something. I assume that emissions are a WORLD issue. We don't have our own climate do we. So as the USA will never pass laws that reduce the ability to draw energy, China WILL produce more and more emissions, as will India and the other developed countries, does ANYONE, other than the Greens, who live in Tasmania, an area closed for business, think that 22,000,000 people living on this island can really make a difference. We will NOT stop digging coal out of the ground any more than the oil nations will stop pulling oil out of the ground.

    2. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Barry Van Es

      "I assume that emissions are a WORLD issue."

      Thanks for the "many wrongs make a right" argument. It will solve the world's problems.

  4. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    It is depressing to read such pap in what I thought was a reputable site.
    All that's missing from this 'panel' is Lord Monckton ....

    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Hi Daniel. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Lord Monckton, eh? Not sure he'd agree with the overall finding of this report -- that a lot more needs to be done if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The report identified potential for nearly three times more emissions reduction activity than is currently being observed. As the other interviewees have said, getting emissions stable is one thing but what we really need to do is reduce them.

    2. Urs Baumgartner

      Consultant for Environment and Sustainability

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh


      If that are your findings, why did you then chose such a title? Doesn't the title suggest another outcome (everything fine, no need to worry)?

      Personally, I believe that GDP isn't a good means to compare with emissions. GDP growth depends on many factors and in Australia it is strongly related to higher revenues in the mining sector (due to increasing commodity prices) which is not a very good example of "wealth creation" in times of significant anthropogenic climate change.

      What's more, if I look at the WRI data, then per capita emissions have significantly increased over the same period. Maybe per capita emissions say more than emissions in relation to GDP!?

    3. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Urs Baumgartner

      Hi Urs, just to clarify, I don't have any findings. I am a journalist reporting the findings of a group of researchers at ClimateWorks, Monash University. The headline was approved by the researchers as an accurate description of their findings. I picked that headline because I think it's interesting and would be of interest to readers. It addresses a point you sometimes hear in the climate change debate -- that conversion to a green economy would result in total economic devastation. The researchers' report found that's not the case. It's possible to limit emissions and still enjoy healthy economic growth. I am surprised you interpret the tone of this article as saying that everything is fine. By paragraph four we introduce the idea that the researchers say much more needs to be done, and the rest of the story from there on elaborates on that theme. Thanks for reading and engaging with the topic.

    4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      Sunanda - The report didn't really find that economic growth can continue without increasing emissions because our big increase in emissions was hidden by a decrease in land clearing.

      When we ignore land clearing and deforestation our 2020 domestic emissions are going to be 43% higher than our 1990 emissions. I think the heading hides this fact - and I'm happy to blame the researchers for this.

      The Stern Review from way back in 2006 - - we have known…

      Read more
  5. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Well that's good news isn't it? 31% and no net increase? Yep looks good!

    Ah numbers you've gottas love 'em ... deceptively alluring in their certainty ... like this 31% GDP business ... how much of that is due to terms of trade and dollar effects via the mining boom?... are we actually doing more or were we just getting paid more for it?

    I'm not a big fan of GDP as a measure of progress - not even all that good as a measure of economic activity given issues like the above such as commodity…

    Read more
  6. Dianna Arthur


    Dear Sunanda

    Now is not the time to take our eyes off the ball - not by a long shot. I understand the point you wished to make that transitioning to sustainable and clean tech need not result in the great apocalypse. However, while there is a powerful minority still intent on halting any change to the business-as-usual- ideal, I believe we need to tread warily and hold off on the champers.

    Take a look at what Germany is achieving, if only Australian leaders had the same strength of conviction.

  7. John Robert Brooker


    The bottom line is that Australia needs to do a lot more to assist the world and itself to limit the extreme damage that will occur to our planet by the continued emission of greenhouse gasses. It is not just this article's message. We would have to be blind deaf and dumb or maybe just plain ignorant, to have missed barrage of warnings currently being issued by reputable scientists around the world!

    I am disgusted by both of our current mainstream political parties policies on climate change…

    Read more
  8. Brett Bailey

    Self Employed

    Reported in SMH - "Weak demand for electricity across eastern mainland states has sparked a “dramatic fall” in greenhouse gas emissions from Australia's power stations, the latest review of data by consultants Pitt & Sherry has found."
    "Dr Hugh Saddler, principal consultant in the climate change business unit of Pitt & Sherry, said "The slide in coal-fired power generation means “it should really be quite easy” for the government to meet its goal of cutting Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 from 2000 levels".
    So now I am a bit confused because the report above says something quite different how can that be?
    The report alos states "stable emissions levels despite economic growth was achieved through reduced deforestation, increased tree-planting, a big boost in industry energy efficiency and sharp drops in power emissions." Isn't that somewhat similar to the proposal put forward by Abbott?

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Brett Bailey

      No - that happened without the government taking billions of taxpayer dollars and using them to bribe organisations to do what they would be doing anyway if they had even a bit of (a) morality or (b) business sense.

  9. Michael Rynn
    Michael Rynn is a Friend of The Conversation.

    unemployed generalist

    In other words, if the government had not maintained policies to carry on with perpetural exponential economic growth of GDP, Australias emissions might have actually gone down. Population growth played some part in rising GDP, but where is the evidence that average and poorer Australians benefitted from this excessive GDP growth? Where is the increase in happiness and security? Full marks for clever GDP and carbon accounting. Not so good for sustainability, as more of nature was used up to generate human waste. Efficiency measures don't work, if all they do is allow increased consumption and growth.

  10. Brett Bailey

    Self Employed

    IN reading some mopre of what the Pitt & Sheery report found "Total emissions from energy use for the year ended September 30 were 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide lower than in the year ended July 2012. In November alone, CO2 emissions from energy dropped another 600,000 tonnes based on a rolling 12-month data series"

    Higher electricity prices appear to be an important prompt to the demand drop.

    “The price is a signal to consumers to use less electricity,” Dr Saddler said. “There's also…

    Read more
  11. Michael Marriott

    logged in via Twitter

    Interesting article, and there a number of ways one could interpret the study.

    That we should drastically reduce our national and per capita emissions goes without saying. That the world needs to reduce GHG emissions goes without saying.

    However, it is worth pointing out that findings of this report knocks out arguments against used against mitigation initiatives and/or efforts to decarbonise our economy (i.e. the "Great Big Tax" slogan used against the price on carbon).

    In fact, this…

    Read more
  12. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    "Emissions stable — now, to reduce them" -- all is ok now! As JeremyT indicates, folks think they can cut more trees. yadda, yadda.

    Wonder why scientists in the US proposed to Congress around 1970 that we plant 1 trillion new trees each year, and eliminate combustion power by about 2000? Did they know something?

    Oh yeah, accumulated emissions then already hundreds of gigatons of carbon then are now over 500Gt, acidifying oceans faster than any time in the fossil past. Oops. Guess even reductions…

    Read more
  13. Graeme Martin

    Winthrop Professor at University of Western Australia

    Is it just me, or does this simple comparison of emissions and GDP miss a major issue? I imagine that much of the economic growth over the past decade is down to coal exports. I presume that this coal is being burned, despite us telling the purchasers not to emit so much carbon. So, our real contribution to global GHG emissions is understated. There is only one atmosphere. We can't clean up only the bit over our heads. Happy to be proven wrong on this.

    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Graeme Martin

      The Climate Commission reported that we need to keep 80% of the world's coal underground.

      This was reported on the ABC 7pm TV news as the 7th item of the bulletin, and this report included someone from the mining industry saying that the Climate Commission are talking crap.

      The facts make clear that we are stuffed - you can't fool the planet.

      But if you keep your head in the bucket of avoiding the topic and pretending that each trivial improvement is a big achievement, then it is very easy to not worry about 'trivialities' such as coal exports.

  14. Fred Payne


    Wasn't there a report from the climate commission suggesting that a large percentage of the remaining fossil fuel reserves should stay in the ground?? How does this report fit in with our ever increasing exports of coal and gas?

  15. Mike Stasse

    retired energy consultant

    This is from
    Quarterly Update of Australia's National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: December 2012
    Figure 7: Percentage change in emissions by sector since 1990, Australia, year to June, 1990-2012
    Units: Per cent change Per cent change Per cent change Per cent change Per cent change Per cent change Per cent change
    Financial year Electricity Stationary energy excluding electricity Transport…

    Read more