Australia’s carbon emissions and electricity demand are growing: here’s why


Hugh Saddler, Australian National University

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise. Electricity emissions, which make up about a third of the total, rose 2.7% in the year to March 2016.

Australia’s emissions reached their peak in 2008-2009. Since then total emissions have barely changed, but the proportion of emissions from electricity fell, largely due to falling demand and less electricity produced by coal. But over the last year demand grew by 2.5%, nearly all of this supplied by coal.

In 2015 I wrote about concerns that Australia’s electricity demand and emissions would start increasing again. This has now come true. So what’s driving the trend?

Why did demand fall?

To understand this trend we need to look at data from Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM), which accounts for just under 90% of total Australian electricity generation. While the NEM doesn’t include Western Australia or the Northern Territory, it has much better publicly available data.

The chart below shows electricity generation from June 2009 to March 2016.


Hugh Saddler, Author provided

The most important things to note are that, until February 2015, overall generation fell and the amount of electricity supplied by coal also fell. These two trends are closely related.

In June 2009, coal was supplying 84% of electricity, while 7% came from renewables (mainly hydro and wind) and 9% from gas.

Because renewables have near-zero short-run marginal costs (because they don’t have to pay for fuel) they will nearly always be able to outcompete coal and gas. This will be particularly so when demand for electricity falls.

Since June 2009 coal has been squeezed out by falling demand and a growing supply of renewables and gas. Until February 2015, total demand fell 8%, gas supply rose 43%, renewable supply grew 55% and coal supply fell 18%.

A dangerous trend

Since February 2015, however, these trends have reversed, which is very bad news for Australia’s emissions. Demand grew 2.5% and, combined with falling electricity supply from gas and renewables, coal picked up the slack, driving emissions 2.7% higher.

Gas generation is being forced out of the market, as wholesale prices throughout eastern Australia have risen to levels set by the three new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in Queensland.

Renewable generation, mainly hydro, increased briefly thanks to the carbon price, further squeezing out coal, but this is of course now gone.

Growth in other renewable generation (mainly wind) has stalled because of the near-total freeze in new investment under the reduced large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET) precipitated by the Abbott government.

Why is demand increasing?

To understand why demand is increasing we can look at the three major consumer groups – industry, business and households – as you can see in the figure below.

Victoria is excluded because differences in the timing of industry reporting to the AER mean that the most recent data are not available. Exclusion of Victoria does not change the overall picture, as it has shown the same trends as the other NEM regions.
Hugh Saddler using data from AER and AEMO, Author provided

After growing until 2012, industry demand fell sharply because of closures of several major establishments, most notably aluminium smelters in New South Wales and Victoria.

Since 2015 very rapid growth has occurred in Queensland, driven by the coal seam gas industry. Extraction of coal seam gas requires the use of enormous numbers of pumps, compressors and related equipment, to first extract the gas from underground and then to compress it for pipeline transport to the LNG plants at Gladstone.

Initially, the industry used gas engines to power this equipment, but then realised that electric motor drive would cost less. The government-owned Queensland electricity transmission business, Powerlink Queensland, is making major investments (paid for by the gas producers) in new transmission lines and substations to meet this new demand.

By the end of 2017-18, electricity demand could increase by 20% in Queensland and by 5% for Australia overall. All of this demand, at least initially, will be supplied by coal-fired power stations, increasing Australia’s total emissions by about 8 million tonnes, or roughly 1.5%.

As a side note, the LNG plants in Queensland will not themselves use electricity from the grid, but will use about 120 petajoules of gas each by 2017-18, adding another 6 million tonnes to national greenhouse gas emissions.

Household and business demand

Household demand fell since 2010 due to energy standards on appliances, increasing electricity prices and a one-off behavioural response due to unprecedented political attention to electricity costs thanks to climate policy.

Now electricity prices have stabilised or are falling and attract much less attention. Moreover, fewer appliance energy standards are being introduced, slowing the decrease in demand.

The result is that average electricity consumption per household, which fell by 17% between 2010 and 2014, has stabilised. In the absence of stronger energy efficiency policies and programs, residential electricity consumption can be expected to grow in line with population.

Business is the largest of the three consumer groups. Electricity demand fell slightly between 2010 and 2014. This is because electricity intensity, the amount of electricity needed to produce economic value, fell 3% each year; that is, slightly faster than the economy grew.

It now appears, however, that in the past year the fall in electricity intensity has almost ceased, so that total consumption has increased in line with economic growth.

A challenge for energy and climate policy

In December 2015 the federal and state governments announced the National Energy Productivity Plan to increase energy productivity 40% by 2030. This is part of the plan to meet Australia’s 2030 climate target.

Energy productivity is the economic value produced per unit of energy. The 40% goal is equivalent to a reduction of just under 30% in the energy intensity of the economy.

In the case of electricity, had the trend of the period 2010 to 2014 continued, this would have been achieved quite easily. It now appears to be a much more challenging goal, requiring the urgent introduction of a range of new energy efficiency policies and programs.


CORRECTION: The lead image has been corrected. It previously incorrectly showed aluminium works at Gladstone, Queensland.

The Conversation

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Consensus confirmed: over 90% of climate scientists believe we’re causing global warming


John Cook, The University of Queensland

When we published a paper in 2013 finding 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, what surprised me was how surprised everyone was.

Ours wasn’t the first study to find such a scientific consensus. Nor was it the second. Nor were we the last.

Nevertheless, no-one I spoke to was aware of the existing research into such a consensus. Rather, the public thought there was a 50:50 debate among scientists on the basic question of whether human activity was causing global warming.

This lack of awareness is reflected in a recent pronouncement by Senator Ted Cruz (currently competing with Donald Trump in the Republican primaries), who argued that:

The stat about the 97% of scientists is based on one discredited study.

Why is a US Senator running for President attacking University of Queensland research on scientific agreement? Cruz’s comments are the latest episode in a decades-long campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.

Back in 2002, a Republican pollster advised conservatives to attack the consensus in order to win the public debate about climate policy. Conservatives complied. In conservative opinion pieces about climate change from 2007 to 2010, their number one argument was “there is no scientific consensus on climate change”.

Recent psychological research has shown that the persistent campaign to confuse the public about scientific agreement has significant societal consequences. Public perception of consensus has been shown to be a “gateway belief”, influencing a range of other climate attitudes and beliefs.

People’s awareness of the scientific consensus affects their acceptance of climate change, and their support for climate action.

The psychological importance of perceived consensus underscores why communicating the 97% consensus is important. Consensus messaging has been shown empirically to increase acceptance of climate change.

And, crucially, it’s most effective on those who are most likely to reject climate science: political conservatives.

In other words, consensus messaging has a neutralising effect, which is especially important given the highly polarised nature of the public debate about climate change.

Expert agreement

Consequently, social scientists have urged climate scientists to communicate the scientific consensus, countering the misconception that they are still divided about human-caused global warming.

But how do you counter the myth that the 97% consensus is based on a single study?

One way is to bring together the authors of the leading consensus papers to synthesise all the existing research: a meta-study of meta-studies. We did exactly that, with a new study published in Environmental Research Letters featuring authors from seven of the leading studies into the scientific consensus on climate change.

A video summary of the new paper into climate change consensus. (2016)

A recurring theme throughout the consensus research was that the level of scientific agreement varied depending on climate expertise. The higher the expertise in climate science, the higher the agreement that humans were causing global warming.

To none of our surprise, the highest agreement was found among climate scientists who had published peer-reviewed climate research. Interestingly, the group with the lowest agreement was economic geologists.

Expertise vs consensus.
Skeptical Science

Seven studies quantified the level of agreement among publishing climate scientists, or among peer-reviewed climate papers. Across these studies, there was between 90% to 100% agreement that humans were causing global warming.

A number of studies converged on the 97% consensus value. This is why the 97% figure is often invoked, having been mentioned by such public figures as President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and US Senator Bernie Sanders.

Studies into consensus.
Skeptical Science

Manufacturing doubt about consensus

The relationship between scientific agreement and expertise turns out to be crucially important in understanding the consensus issue. Unfortunately, it provides an opportunity for those who reject human-caused global warming to manufacture doubt about the high level of scientific agreement.

They achieve this by using groups of scientists with lower expertise in climate science, to convey the impression that expert agreement on climate change is low. This technique is known as “fake experts”, one of the five characteristics of science denial.

For example, surveys of climate scientists may be “diluted” by including scientists who don’t possess expertise in climate science, thus obtaining a lower level of agreement compared to the consensus among climate scientists. This is partly what Senator Rick Santorum did when he argued that the scientific consensus was only 43%.

Another implementation of the “fake expert” strategy is the use of petitions containing many scientists who lack climate science credentials. The most famous example is the Oregon Petition Project, which lists over 31,000 people with a science degree who signed a statement that humans aren’t disrupting the climate. However, 99.9% of the signatories aren’t climate scientists.

The science of science communication tells us that communicating the science isn’t sufficient. Misinformation has been shown to cancel out the effect of accurate scientific information. We also need to explain the techniques of misinformation, such as the “fake expert” strategy.

This is why in communicating the results of our latest study, we not only communicated the overwhelming scientific agreement. We also explained the technique used to cast doubt on the consensus.

The Conversation

John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.