Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo
Eighteen countries from developed economies have had declining carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for at least a decade. While every nation is unique, they share some common themes that can show Australia, and the world, a viable path to reducing emissions.
Global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels continue to increase, with record high emissions in 2018 and further growth anticipated for 2019. This trend is linked to global economic growth, which is largely still powered by the burning of fossil fuels.
Significant reductions in the energy and carbon intensities of the global economy have not been sufficient to trigger decreases in global emissions.
But 18 countries have been doing something different. A new analysis sheds light on how they have changed their emission trajectories. There is no “silver bullet”, and every country has unique characteristics, but three elements emerge from the group: a high penetration of renewable energy in the electricity sector, a decline in energy use, and a high number of energy and climate policies in place. Something is working for these countries.
Australia was not part of the study, as its CO₂ emissions from the burning of fossil fuels remained largely stable over the study period 2005-2015 while the country’s economy grew. However, emissions of all greenhouse gases across all sectors of the economy (including land use change) declined over most of the same period, a trend that reversed in 2014 since when emissions have increased.
Why did emissions decline?
The 18 countries shown below all peaked their fossil fuel emissions no later than 2005 and had significant declines thereafter to 2015, the period covered by our study.
Uniformly, the largest contribution to emissions reductions – about 47% – was due to decreases in the fossil share of energy production, while reductions in overall energy use contributed 36%.
However, there are large differences in the relative importance of the factors that drove emissions reductions in the various countries. For instance, reduced energy use dominated emissions reductions in many countries of the European Union, whereas a more balanced spread of factors dominated in the United States, with the single largest contributor being the switch from coal to gas. Emissions reductions in Austria, Finland and Sweden were due to an increased share of non-fossil and renewable energy.
Interestingly, our analyses suggest that there is a correlation between the number of policies to promote the uptake of renewable energy and the decline in the 18 countries.
The declining emissions were not caused by the consumption of products produced elsewhere during the period examined. Earlier in the 2000s, this practice of outsourcing emissions to other countries (for example by moving manufacturing offshore) was a significant driver of emissions decline in many developed countries. But that effect has diminished.
The lasting consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis on the global economy however did have an impact, and partially explained the reduced energy use in many countries.
How significant are these emissions declines?
Emissions declined by 2.4% per year during 2005-15 across the 18 countries.
One could argue this decline is not particularly meaningful because global fossil fuel emissions continued to grow at 2.2% per year during the same period. However, this group of countries is responsible for 28% of the global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels. That is a sizeable fraction, and if the decline continues and further intensifies it can have a significant impact.
The 18 peak-and-decline countries also played a part in the stalling of global emissions between 2014 and 2016 while the global economy continued to grow, a combination that showed, briefly and for the first time, what accelerated decarbonisation would look like. While China did not have 10 years of continuous declining emissions (and hence it was not part of the group of 18 countries), it was the biggest contributor during this stalling.
There is no guarantee that the declining trends will continue over the coming decades. In fact, our global 2018 carbon budget report showed that some of the more recent country trends are fragile and require further policy and actions to strengthen the decreases and support long-term robust decarbonisation trends.
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it seems some countries have already begun walking that road. Now we all need to start running decisively.
Pep Canadell, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo
Australia’s new flagship Climate Solutions Fund, announced this week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, will spend more than A$2 billion on cutting greenhouse emissions by 2030.
While action on climate change is welcomed, this announcement seems to be a faithful reprise of the previous Emissions Reduction Fund, which was beset with problems.
The government has put a new name on an existing scheme, while steadfastly refusing to learn from mistakes made along the way. In cruder terms, it’s slapped a gleaming coat of lipstick onto a pig of a policy.
Add to that the A$1.38 billion pledged today for building the Snowy 2.0 scheme – another plan hatched by one of the government’s former incarnations – and there’s not a lot of imagination on display as Morrison’s government scrambles for some much-needed climate credibility ahead of this year’s election.
Currently Australia’s main tool to try and reduce emissions is the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), a “reverse auction” that lets businesses voluntarily reduce pollution and be rewarded with taxpayer cash. Successful bidders for funding have to sign a contract to reduce their pollution over several years.
So far, 193 million tonnes of pollution reduction has been secured at an average cost of A$12 per tonne. In total, around A$2.5bn will have been used to help businesses reduce pollution under the ERF’s original incarnation.
The Climate Solutions Fund is basically a rebranding exercise. It will build on the existing ERF but now expands the scope of participants, including allowing farmers to drought-proof their farms and subsidising businesses to pursue energy-efficiency projects.
Experience tells us it’s a bad idea
The aim for any climate policy should be to reduce our emissions to the agreed 2030 levels at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen with the Climate Solutions Fund.
This fund will inherit many of the ERF’s existing problems.
One of the ERF’s main issues is with its so-called “safeguard mechanism”. This was set up to ensure that large polluters could not cancel out the progress achieved by the fund’s participants. But this has failed: many large polluters’ “benchmarks” (the amount of emissions they are allowed to release before being penalised) have increased over time and, consequently, much of the work done by the fund has indeed been undone. Because of this, the fund has not given good value for money, despite awarding funding to the lowest bidders.
There are deeper problems. The way the funding is awarded – with public funds going to project proponents who promise to do a good job – the participants inevitably know more about the details of the projects than the government does. This “informational asymmetry” may mean that businesses overquote, asking for more money than they would be prepared to accept.
The successful projects that have signed up may not even be genuinely “additional”, in that they may well have gone ahead regardless of whether or not they won government backing. In other words, we could be paying for something that would have happened anyway!
But we know what works
Economists have known for decades the best way to encourage pollution reduction. It involves putting a price on carbon.
Implementing a carbon tax or (more likely) a carbon trading market will give business the flexibility to choose their own pollution control measures, while also ensuring that overall emissions are reined in.
A carbon price will spur industry to invest in cleaner technologies (and increase the potential for jobs growth in these areas) and ensure we meet our climate goals.
Despite prophesies of economic doom, a carbon price can be used to decarbonise the economy, simulate growth in new industries, and redistribute the revenue to ensure equity. It’s using economic levers to help the environment.
Putting lipstick on a pig does not change the fact that it is still a pig.
Since colonisation, a dizzying array of Australia’s native species and ecosystems have been altered or removed altogether. It therefore seems natural to consider the idea of restoring what’s been lost – a process termed “rewilding”.
Now a global trend, rewilding projects aim to restore functional ecosystems. The rationale is that by reactivating the often complex relationships between species – such as apex predators and their prey, for example – these ecosystems once again become able to sustain themselves.
Rewilding has successfully captured the public interest, particularly overseas. Conservation group Rewilding Europe has a network of eight rewilding areas and a further 59 related projects, covering 6 million hectares in total.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States remains the most recognised example of rewilding. The wolves reduced elk numbers and changed their behaviour, which allowed vegetation to grow and stabilise stream banks.
But in Australia, we need to do rewilding differently. The particular challenges we face with issues such as introduced species mean that, like Vegemite, our rewilding future must have a unique flavour.
Our recently published paper builds on findings from a rewilding forum held in Sydney in late 2016. Academics, government and non-government agencies met to discuss some of the outstanding issues around rewilding in Australia. Despite the large, diverse audience and wide-ranging views, the forum succeeded in identifying some key themes.
Peninsulas often make good locations for rewilding in Australia because their geography allows the impacts of introduced predators to be minimised. Booderee National Park at Jervis Bay has reintroduced long-nosed potoroos, southern brown bandicoots and eastern quolls.
A much bigger Peninsula, Yorke, in South Australia, is the site of an ambitious project to reintroduce 20 species currently extinct in the area.
The widespread removal of dingoes has reduced natural control on introduced species such as foxes and cats. This in turn has allowed feral cats and red foxes to prey on small digging native mammals in the absence of a larger competitor. Meanwhile, declines in Tasmanian devils have been mirrored by declines in smaller predators like eastern quolls, and changes to cat behaviour, suggesting devils indirectly affect other species.
Many of these digging mammals have declined continent-wide and disappeared completely from other areas. This in turn has resulted in knock-on effects, such as altered fire regimes and changes to plant diversity.
It’s no surprise, then, that our workshop identified restoring predators and small mammals as priorities in Australia. Lots of work is already going on to restore small mammal populations, such as via Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s and Arid Recovery’s fenced exclosures, from which foxes and cats have been eliminated.
But exclosures are also contrary to the aims of rewilding, because they need ongoing maintenance and do not help the ecosystem inside to be self-sustaining. They can also exacerbate prey naïveté, whereby the native mammals fail to recognise and avoid introduced predators.
It may therefore be useful to view fences as a stepping stone to restoring small mammal populations to broader landscapes, helped by a variety of means including promoting co-evolution of native and introduced species, incentives to farmers, and the use of guardian animals.
Australia is different
Passive rewilding – the removal of human agriculture, resulting in the return of natural vegetation – has had positive impacts on biodiversity in Europe. It could have similarly positive impacts here, for example by increasing the density of tree hollows in previously logged forest and woodland. But a complete removal of management is unlikely to be effective because of, for example, the need to manage fire and the presence of introduced species like miner birds that exert influences on other species and even entire ecosystems.
In arid areas, simply removing agriculture is unlikely to halt the declines in biodiversity unless deliberate steps are taken to control pest plants and animals and to shift the ecosystem into a preferred state. In oceans, where rewilding is no less urgent due to declines in large predatory fish, passive rewilding may be more feasible, as marine protected areas can result in recovery of fish, provided certain key criteria are met.
Reintroducing large (bigger than 100kg) herbivores is part of rewilding efforts in Europe and Asia. Yet in Australia, all large herbivores are introduced and are generally perceived as having negative impacts.
“Natural” control of such species is not possible due to a lack of big native predators. Introducing “surrogates” of long-extinct predators (as are used elsewhere in rewilding) would have predictable results in terms of human acceptance (farmers wouldn’t like it), but uncertain impacts on ecosystems.
What about people?
People can benefit from rewilding – either directly, through wildlife tourism income or reduced kangaroo grazing on farmland, or indirectly such as via provision of services like flood control. So rewilding should not, as has been suggested elsewhere, necessarily separate humans from nature. Aboriginal owned and managed land offers huge opportunities in this regard because it covers 52% of the country and is home to many threatened species. In urban areas, rewilding will have to be a compromise between what is acceptable to humans and what benefits ecosystems most.
There is clearly an appetite among scientists and managers for bold interventions such as trial reintroductions of Tasmanian devils to mainland Australia to restore ancient food chains or allowing dingoes to return to areas where they occur at low densities and are functionally extinct. Rewilding’s focus on restoration of ecosystem processes can complement, but not replace, existing conservation approaches. For example, we still need to achieve a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve network on land and at sea.
Development of a rewilding vision and strategy would be a valuable first step towards maximising the potential of rewilding, tracking success, and persuading governments to fund it.
The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Dr Andy Sharp, Natural Resources Northern and Yorke Manager Planning and Programs, to this article.
Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Research Fellow, University of Sydney; John Turnbull, PhD Candidate, UNSW; Menna Elizabeth Jones, Associate professor, University of Tasmania; Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW, and Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney