ACT State of the Environment 2007

Indicator: Greenhouse gas emissions

Summary

Climate change and greenhouse emissions are becoming an increasingly important issue locally, nationally and internationally.

The ACT's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with per capita emissions increasing by nearly 10% since 1990.

Over 95% of emissions are energy related with over 70% being created by the electricity (and gas) used to heat, cool and light our homes, offices and other buildings, and over 20%  from our transport system. The remainder comes from waste, industrial processes and emissions from transmission and transportation of fossil fuels. The ACT also has a carbon credit, due to decreased land clearing.

What the results tell us about the ACT

The ACT is responsible for about 1.2% of Australian emissions, and in its turn Australia contributes between 1% and 2% of the global total. However, when emissions are compared on a per capita basis, it becomes clear that Australia's contributions are higher than most other nations, and that the ACT is one of the country's largest per capita emitters.1

The ACT currently emits approximately 4.45 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents2 per year, which amounts to about 13.7 tonnes per year per person. The Territory's per capita emissions have increased by nearly 10% since 1990. Total emissions are growing for two reasons: population growth and increased energy use per household. Emissions are likely to continue to increase if there is no change to current practices.

The ACT's emission pattern is different to the national profile. There is almost no heavy industry or intensive agriculture in the Territory, both of which can be responsible for producing large quantities of greenhouse gases. Instead, over 95% of emissions in the Territory are created by the Territory's transport system as well as the electricity (and gas) used to heat, cool and light homes, offices and other buildings (stationary energy).

Transport is the second highest contributor to the ACT's emissions (see Figure 1). Although there has not been a detailed breakdown within the transport category, national figures for 2005 show that motor vehicles are responsible for about 88% of transport emissions, followed by aviation.

Our emissions profile highlights the importance of action across the community to reduce emissions.  While leadership needs to come from Government, they cannot, on their own, reduce energy use in all buildings in the ACT or reduce the transport emissions from all Canberrans.  It is important that business and community are encouraged and supported to take actions to reduce their emissions.

Figure 1: ACT greenhouse gas emissions

Graph of ACT greenhouse gas emissions

Source: TAMS, Climate Change Policy Unit (unpublished)

Climate change

There is a dominant view among environmental scientists that climate change is being significantly accelerated by the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases primarily due to human activity and that the enhanced greenhouse effect is a global phenomenon. Emissions in one place do not, however, change the climate in the particular locality in which they occur. Instead, emitted greenhouse gases mix around the planet, and alter the global 'heat budget' by preventing the release into space of some of the heat from the Earth's surface.

While it is not correct to attribute Australia's climatic variability and frequent droughts to human actions, the effect of the unusually warm, dry weather has been to focus public concern on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on long- and shorter-term climate variability.

Addressing climate change and greenhouse gas emissions

International debate over the human contribution to the Earth's changing climate increased during the reporting period. Over much of Australia, including the ACT, drought and above-average temperatures continued until the end of the reporting period, causing increased public concern. (As we go to press, there has been a much-needed lessening in Australia's drought.)

Research indicates that significant reductions in Australian (and therefore ACT) greenhouse gas emissions are genuinely achievable without major changes to our economic performance and quality of life. This involves use of technology such as carbon capture and storage for electricity-generating plants that burn carbon fuels. Such schemes, and others, are beyond the Territory's scope although local action to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change is certainly manageable; locally generated wind, geothermal and solar power are all possibilities and the capture of methane from landfill and its use is already taking place.

Following the federal election in November 2007, the new Australian Government announced its greenhouse agenda. This included the swift ratification of the Kyoto Protocol with its commitment to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at 108% of 1990 levels by 2012.

In July 2007, the ACT Government released the ACT Climate Change Strategy, Weathering the Change. The stated target is to reduce emissions to 60% of those in the year 2000 by 2050. By 2025, the Territory intends to reduce emissions to 2000 levels. The government admits that

it will not be possible to deliver an immediate cut in emissions. Our aim is to stabilise emissions and then reduce them over time. Our emissions will be determined by actions here, actions nationally and globally, as well as by external pressures such as population growth (ACT Government 2007:23).

Furthermore, the government acknowledges that there is 'likely to be an increase in our emissions before abatement actions, both existing and planned, will start to make significant reductions.' (ACT Government 2007:23)

For serious long-term reductions, the Territory – along with much of the rest of the world – will need to drastically reduce its reliance on hydrocarbon fuels (which are oil derivatives, coal and natural gas). Apart from greenhouse gas emissions there are also sound reasons for reducing reliance on non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels; for example, they are being depleted and may not be available in the long-term. If implemented effectively, the actions outlined in the ACT Government's first climate change action plan will also play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the Territory's ability to adapt to climate change.

References

Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change 2006, The Business Case for Early Action, Australia

ACT Government 2007, Weathering the Change, ACT Climate Change Strategy 2007–25

Notes

1 When discussing 'the ACT's emissions' we mean greenhouse gas emissions for which the ACT is held responsible. It does not follow that all of these gases are emitted within the Territory's border.

2 It is not just carbon dioxide that causes warming in the lower atmosphere; various other gases do too, and some of them have a far greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, although they are produced in much smaller amounts. To make matters easier, emissions of all the different greenhouse gases are often expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e).

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