Petrol fuels Australia's record greenhouse emissions growth

October 6, 2017
Road use of diesel is driving up greenhouse gas pollution across Australia.

In the three months to June, Australia's greenhouse gas emissions reached a record level, with the annual emissions on track to surpass the previous peak in 2009, according to the latest National Energy Emissions Audit published by The Australia Institute.

The report is put together regularly for The Australia Institute by Dr Hugh Saddler of the Australian National University. It attributes the rise in emissions to growth in petrol and diesel consumption, with diesel in particular increasing. The report notes there are no policies to limit or reduce vehicle emissions and Australia lacks strong vehicle fuel efficiency standards. Emissions from electricity generation fell slightly, despite the absence of carbon pricing policies.

Emissions from petroleum use are now at 83% of those from coal and gas for electricity generation, the report says. Including road fuels, air fuels, LPG and bulk diesel, petroleum emissions have climbed by 12% since 2011, with most of this due to a large increase in on- and off-road diesel combustion.

While bulk diesel (mostly for off-road use) is increasing in the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland, which use a whopping 60% of the total for this category, retail (road) use of diesel is increasing across the country. “The inexorable increase in road transport activity and associated emissions is almost entirely unaffected, unlike electricity consumption, by any increase in fuel use efficiency,” the report notes.

Brown coal down, renewables up

Emissions from generation of electricity fell from 2009 to 2014, then rebounded a little after the repeal of the carbon pricing scheme. As the report notes, the unsustainable use of hydro-electricity during the carbon price period and its subsequent curtailing to allow dams to refill accounts for a significant part of the dip and rebound in emissions.

From mid-2016, emissions in the electricity sector began to fall again. Breaking down by fuel type shows the reasons why. Brown coal use has decreased, especially since the closure of the most polluting brown coal power station — Hazelwood in Victoria — in March, while its output has been replaced by less polluting sources from black coal and gas.

In the longer term, renewable energy has been making significant inroads into electricity generation, with the data showing all renewables, including hydro, have increased from 6.5% in 2008 to about 18% of total generation.

A record of a good kind was set on August 16, when wind farms provided an all-time high average 3629 megawatts to the National Electricity Market (NEM — all states except WA and Northern Territory).


Total electricity grid demand (electricity used) has been relatively stable for the year to June at about 10% below 2011 demand levels. While the report does not delve into this, the closures of manufacturing industries in Victoria could be a key element, with Victorian demand falling sharply since late last year, coinciding with the beginning of that state's automotive manufacturing industry closing down. 

While highest peak demand in most states occurs for short periods on hot summer days, the report shows that overall highest energy use is actually in winter for all states except WA and Queensland. This is despite widespread use of gas instead of electricity for heating, and the report suggests that without this effect, WA would also have its peak electricity use in winter.

While it lowers energy demand from the grid, burning gas is an inefficient and increasingly expensive way to heat. Standards Australia recently produced a draft standard which would, for the first time, provide a direct comparison of energy efficiency between some common gas heaters and the more efficient heat pump alternatives (reverse cycle air conditioners). The draft is open for comment.

In an article published by the Alternative Technology Association, Adjunct Professor Alan Pears of RMIT has pointed out that the way building standards are being met in Victoria is making homes warmer in winter, but at the expense of turning them into ovens for a shorter period in summer.

Black-tile roofs and unshaded windows allow the inside to heat up, while the improved insulation then traps the heat inside. This is one factor that may increase the tendency for high air conditioning energy use in summer heatwaves, the time of highest peak demand when there is the highest risk of blackouts.

The Liddell problem

After Hazelwood’s closure in March, and since energy company AGL announced it would close its Liddell power station in NSW in 2022, federal politicians have been tying themselves in knots to convince the public that the only way to prevent widespread summer blackouts will be to keep these aging, clapped-out power stations running, perhaps propped up by federal funds.

The main risk of blackouts is hot summer days when air conditioning uses a lot of energy. The report notes that the record peak use in Victoria occurred in 2008–09, when the top 2% of demand for the year was over eight hours on January 29–30. However, these extreme peak use events have been decreasing over time, particularly as large amounts of rooftop solar are now reducing demand on hot sunny afternoons.

The report also points out that during an energy use peak in NSW on February 10, the sudden drop-out of two gas generators put a huge burden on the remaining generators. While solar and wind performed as expected, coal generators were only operating at 70–80% of their maximum capacity. This was because the ancient Liddell power station suffered a series of leaks that put two of its four generator units out of action. Meanwhile, Eraring power station was operating at lower than usual capacity, which the report suggests was probably due to its cooling water being heated by the weather.

In the event, hydro generators worked hardest to pick up the slack in this incident, but blackouts were prevented only by the Tomago aluminium smelter agreeing to turn off each of its three potlines for an hour at a time. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Liddell, or the fossil fuel power generators.

Renewables and storage

A number of groundbreaking renewable energy projects are now planned, including huge solar farms, the revolutionary solar thermal plus storage power station going ahead in South Australia and a steady growth of wind farms and rooftop solar.

This contrasts with the situation just a few years ago when renewable energy companies were unwilling to invest in a country with the federal government (Tony Abbott, and even earlier under Labor's energy minister Martin Ferguson) creating renewable energy policy uncertainty for a significant period.

Despite the modest growth in renewable energy, the overall growth in emissions is a stark reminder of the federal government's failure to address climate change. Their unwillingness to see a clapped out, already breaking down Liddell power station close by 2022 should be contrasted with Malcolm Turnbull's 2010 speech in support of research by think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions, which showed how to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2020.

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