Environment: Government delivers climate rhetoric but not emissions reductions

Jun 2, 2024
A split picture of concrete that has floated and smoothed next to freshly placed rough concrete.

Australia’s emissions reductions have stalled just when we need to be ramping up ambition and action. Concrete’s emissions set to be high for decades.

Australia’s emissions reductions stall

Ketan Joshi keeps a very close eye on what the government reports as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. His analysis of the emissions to the end of 2023 reaches some interesting conclusions:

  1. Australia’s total emissions have all-but stopped falling. At the very low rate of reduction over the previous two years (mostly under the Albanese government’s stewardship), it will take until 2207 to reach zero emissions.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, excluding from land use, 2017-2023

Image: Supplied
  1. Post-Covid, rebounding emissions from heavy industry, agriculture and transport are cancelling out reductions in power sector emissions.
  2. Over the years, both Coalition and ALP governments have repeatedly used revisions of the (unreliable) land-use emissions data to exaggerate climate action and the emissions reductions achieved. One outcome of this is that Australia’s target of a 43% reduction of the 2005 level of emissions by 2030 is actually more like a real 24% reduction.
  3. Emissions from fossil fuels and land-use are not interchangeable and it would be better to report them separately and set targets separately.

Joshi is unimpressed by Labor’s performance to date: ‘It’s not unlikely that Labor glide into the 2025 federal election with almost nothing to show for their climate policies, in the emissions data. While they might plead for patience, climate change is an urgent problem demanding immediate and deep cuts, and we can say with total confidence right now that they’re falling short.’

Seize the decade … but seize it now

The Climate Council asserts that ‘climate change is hurting Australians and decisions made today will shape our kids future’. It is calling on Australians (citizens, governments and the private sector) to seize the decade of the 2020s and cut Australia’s annual GHG emissions from the current 458 megatons to 154 Mt in 2030, the 75% reduction that the science requires.

Image: Supplied

The Council shows how existing and committed policies can be supplemented with proven and readily available technologies to make it happen:

  1. Eliminate almost all climate pollution from electricity generation: more rooftop and large-scale solar, more wind, more household and community batteries; close all coal-fired power stations by 2030; stop building new gas generation facilities unless they can swap to renewable hydrogen.
  2. Electrify industry and switch to other zero emission fuels: electrify industrial processes; replace coal, oil and gas with a range of renewable energy sources; recycle scrap metal to produce 35% of steel and 40% of aluminium; improve energy efficiency; stop approving new coal mines and expansions.
  3. Use shared, active and electric transport: 30% of projected private vehicle use in 2030 shifted to shared and active transport; more use of trains for long distance passenger and freight transport; more EV taxis, rideshare vehicles, government fleet vehicles and heavy vehicles.
  4. Protect and restore landscapes: end native forest logging; phase down land clearing; phase-down the use of land-based offsets (eliminating them would be better!); cut agricultural emissions with feed additives for cattle, covered ponds to reduce manure emissions, slow-release nitrogen fertilisers, more legumes in pastures; reduce food waste in households and businesses.
  5. More efficient, electrified homes and workplaces: new homes are all electric; efficient electrical appliances; insulation, window glazing and gap sealing.

Sadly, the benefits that ordinary Australians will experience when we move to a more environmentally sustainable way of living are insufficiently discussed. It’s always the problems that grab the headlines and stimulate shock-jock rage. The Council highlights some of the community benefits that will accrue beyond simply reducing our GHG emissions: good jobs, competitive businesses, empowered communities, more affordable energy, cleaner air, fast and fair development, better quality of life, healthier environment, lower costs of living (but oddly no mention of better health).

Interestingly, the Climate Council has a more benevolent view than Joshi of the progress Australia is currently making towards cutting emissions and the contribution the current government has made: In late 2023, the federal government released projections showing Australia is broadly on track to meet our national target of cutting climate pollution by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. We’re well on the way to achieving this off the back of initiatives delivered and well advanced by the Albanese Government during its first term in office.’

Bill Hare from Climate Analytics tends towards Ketan Joshi’s view, warning that Australia is unlikely to achieve its net zero target, rating its efforts as ‘poor’ and criticising successive governments’ sleight of hand when claiming emissions reductions. Hare also compares the $22.7 billion the government has budgeted for the new ‘Future Made in Australia’ policy over the next decade with the $14.5 billion per year spent on fossil fuel subsidies.

Wild at art

Image: Supplied

Some of you may remember the very original ‘Hug the slug’ artwork by 12-year-old Griffin that I featured a few months ago. It was one of the winners in the 2023 Wild At Art threatened species art competition for kids run by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The 2024 competition opens on June 17th and entries must be submitted by August 12th. All children aged 5-12 are eligible and there are multiple categories. Please encourage kids to participate. There’s even a lesson plan for teachers.

Last year, almost 6,800 children entered the competition and the artworks of all the winners are remarkable for both their environmental awareness and their artistic skill. I particularly like the topicality and colour of ‘Barbie of the bush’ by 7-year-old Lillian (above) and the very skilful drawing displayed in ‘Dunnart on verge of extinction’ by Lahaina, age 12 (below). The mournful stare as the Dunnart almost disappears from the frame is very good.

Image: Supplied

Global undemocratic republic of concrete

If concrete were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world. This is partly because the world pours an awful lot of concrete and is likely to keep pouring a lot for a long time yet, and also because each ton of concrete produces a lot of CO2.

Now, I am aware that cement and concrete are not the same thing but that has largely been the extent of my expertise on the topic and I must confess to using, through ignorance, the two words pretty much interchangeably. As, I suspect, have many others.

With apologies to the engineers amongst us, cement is simply the binding agent in concrete and makes up just 15% of the total volume. The other 85% provides the substance of concrete and mainly includes water and aggregates such as sand, gravel and the wonderfully named ‘supplementary cementitious materials’. Although clinker constitutes only two-thirds of the cement (and hence only 10% of the final concrete), it is the source of about 70% of the GHG emissions associated with concrete. This is because clinker is produced by heating limestone and readers who were paying attention in their chemistry classes will remember that limestone is calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and when it’s heated it releases lots of CO2.

The relationship between volumes and emissions is probably much clearer in the two pie-charts below.

Image: Supplied


Image: Supplied

The significance of this elementary lesson in chemistry and construction science is, of course, that not only is concrete a major source of CO2 emissions but also that the industry is one where it is genuinely hard to reduce emissions. Reducing the amount of clinker in cement reduces emissions and these ‘blended cements’ are being used increasingly. Similarly, reducing the amount of cement in concrete reduces emissions, as does using other building materials in place of concrete, but the reality is that concrete looks like being a high emitter for some time to come.

In fact, this is one of the few areas where carbon capture and storage might be useful, provided it can be made to work at industrial scale and provided it can be done cheaply. Two provisos that have proven impossible to achieve to date despite enormous private sector investments and public subsidies.

Reforming our environment protection laws, or maybe not

The story so far:

Australia’s natural environment is collapsing. The Australian government’s major piece of legislation to protect the environment, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, is failing because it is not fit for purpose and needs reform. The previous government was happy with the current arrangements and did nothing. While in opposition and during its early days in office, the ALP promised to reform the Act and make it effective during this term of government. More recently the government has announced that new legislation will not be introduced into parliament during this term. Since being elected, the Albanese government has continued to approve new fossil fuel projects and has recently released a plan to keep producing natural gas until at least 2050, even though to keep global warming under 1.5oC it’s essential that no new fossil fuel projects be approved anywhere.

Image: Supplied

It’s difficult to imagine a situation more perfectly suited to the production of ‘How to state capture (the EPBC Act)’, another ‘Honest Government Ad’. Juice Media have again served up an amuse bouche of biting satire accompanied with a sauce of Juicey invective. Definitely five stars and just as definitely PGR.

Australia’s angry summer

It’s not only the benefits of decarbonising our society that receive too little attention. So do the current and future harms of not decarbonising. Thanks to the Climate and Health Alliance for the infographic below.

Image: Supplied

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!