Chris Bowen used a speech at the NPC to reiterate the claim
Chris Bowen used a speech at the National Press Club to reiterate the claim made in his tweet.

Minister’s rising emissions claim omits effects of pandemic

Max Opray July 8, 2022

The "Liberal legacy on climate change" delivered the largest rise in emissions for 15 years in 2021.


Misleading. The increase was largely due to the bounceback from COVID-19 and recovery from the drought. Other nations had similar rises.

The coalition is no longer in government, but Labor minister Chris Bowen reckons the “Liberal legacy on climate change” lives on.

He said a “decade wasted by denial and delay” was responsible for Australia’s largest rise in emissions for 15 years in 2021.

However, the climate change minister’s claim omits some important context. Australia’s emissions rose about 0.8 per cent in 2021, but this was largely explained by the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a five per cent drop in emissions in 2020.

Other nations including the US and the UK experienced a similar pattern of emissions falling in 2020, before rising in 2021.

Mr Bowen made the claim in a tweet on June 28, saying: “With nine years of denial and delay they left rising power bills AND rising emissions. The latest figures show the largest jump in emissions in 15 years.”

He made a similar claim in a National Press Club speech the following day.

When asked for the source of the claim, Mr Bowen’s office told AAP FactCheck in an email the figures are based on data from Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions accounts.

Mr Bowen is correct in saying the latest figures show the biggest rise in emissions in 15 years.

The data indicated there was an 0.8 per cent uptick in emissions in 2021, the equivalent of an extra 4.1 million tonnes of emissions when compared to the same period in 2020. The previous largest increase in annual emissions occurred in 2006, when emissions rose by 15.6 million tonnes.

However, Mr Bowen’s claim “the Liberal legacy” caused the rise is not so clear cut.

Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts show emissions dropped 5.2 per cent during 2020, the steepest annual fall since 1992.

The fall was partly due to Australian transport emissions tumbling more than 12 per cent in 2020, when much of the country was in lockdown for significant periods.

In 2021, transport emissions rose four per cent and agriculture emissions increased 4.2 per cent, when compared to 2020.

The pattern was similar in other nations, with global emissions falling by a record 5.8 per cent in 2020, then rebounding in 2021 towards pre-pandemic levels

Professor Andrew Macintosh, a climate expert at Australian National University, told AAP FactCheck he believes Mr Bowen’s statement is “not 100 per cent correct”.

“It is correct to say the policy of the Liberals is a big cause of total emissions, but this short-term spike for 2021 is largely attributable to COVID and the (2019-2020) drought,” Prof Macintosh said in a phone interview. 

"Transport emissions were significantly affected over the COVID period, while manufacturing industries were not at full throttle.

"Agriculture emissions rebounded from the drought, the industry destocked significantly, the size of herds shrunk and it has bounced back."

Prof Macintosh said there was some validity to Mr Bowen's claim in that a "proper safeguard system" was not in place to drive down emissions, but believed the claim was "also overreach".

Professor Roger Jones, a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University, agreed the pandemic partly explained the fall and rise of Australian emissions.

However, he told AAP FactCheck the emissions rise also reflected the former coalition government's underlying policy problems.

"There are two ways to look at this - one is to take the figures at face value and say it was largely due to manufacturing and transport," Prof Jones said in an email.

"However, if we look at the underlying policy drivers, they reflect the capacity of the whole system to reduce emissions … this can be traced back to the repeal of the Clean Energy Future carbon levy and the weakening of the other mechanisms.

"It also highlights the need to have a sound sector-by-sector policy setting for transition, especially in manufacturing and transport. The previous government resisted this fiercely."

Australia's 0.8 per cent rise in emissions in 2021 was relatively low compared to the US, UK and European Union.

Total US emissions increased 6.2 per cent in 2021 compared to 2020, according to preliminary data published by the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider based in New York.

The rise in US emissions was led by the transportation sector, with a 10 per cent jump in 2021, the steepest rise of all economic sectors.

Meanwhile, UK net emissions increased 4.7 per cent in 2021, also primarily driven by a 10 per cent increase in the transport sector.

Emissions covered by the EU Emissions Trading System rose 7.3 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020 levels.

The Verdict

While it is correct to say 2021 was the largest jump in Australia's emissions in 15 years, it is misleading to lay the blame solely with the previous government.

Experts said the 2021 rise was largely driven by the easing of COVID restrictions, which saw transport emissions rise, and recovery from drought, which saw livestock emissions jump. Other nations witnessed similar or even larger increases in emissions.

Misleading – The claim is accurate in parts but information has also been presented incorrectly, out of context or omitted.

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