Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded to the concerns of young climate protesters by claiming Australia has reduced emissions more than the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan.
On March 25, school students gathered outside the prime minister’s official Sydney residence at Kirribilli House to call for greater climate action. At a press conference on the same day, he was asked what message he had for the students.
“Contrary to what they might be being told by many people with other agendas, Australia is reducing its emissions by around 20 per cent,” Mr Morrison said.
“They probably mightn’t know that Australia has reduced its emissions by more than New Zealand, by more than Canada, by more than the United States, by more than Japan, by more than many countries in Europe.”
Mr Morrison made a similar claim on March 13 during an interview on Channel Nine when he said: “We need to get emissions down, and we’ve got it down by more than 20 per cent. Canada can’t say that. New Zealand can’t say that. (The) United States can’t say that. Japan can’t say that, but we can.”
However, the prime minister’s claim is only true for most of the countries when comparing net greenhouse gas emissions, which factor in the impact of changes in land use such as increased forestation – commonly referred to as LULUCF (land use, land-use change and forestry) emissions. The latest, comparable data also shows the US has reduced net emissions by a greater amount than Australia.
When comparing gross emissions, a measure which excludes changes in land use and one that is preferred by many governments, all of the countries listed by Mr Morrison have outperformed Australia.
When asked by AAP FactCheck for a source for the prime minister’s claim, a spokeswoman pointed to figures from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
She said this identified between 2005 and 2019 Australia had achieved an emissions reduction, including land use changes, of 15 per cent, compared to 13 per cent in the US, 10 per cent in Japan, four per cent in New Zealand and one per cent in Canada.
This total for Australia falls short of the “around 20 per cent” cut in Mr Morrison’s comments. The UN figures do not list 2020 totals.
However, more recent Australian government figures show that the country’s net emissions were 20.1 per cent lower in 2020 when compared to 2005, the base year for Australia’s commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The UN says changes in land use can help mitigate climate change, however the main drawback of their use towards emissions targets was their potential reversibility and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases. However some experts have raised concerns that the effect of these changes are difficult to measure, and in Australia may be based on inaccurate information.
Victoria University professor Philip Adams, an expert on economic modelling of emissions targets, told AAP FactCheck over the phone that comparing 2019 figures overseas with Australia’s 2020 emissions was misleading.
“COVID depressed activity in 2020 significantly, which is a good story for emissions but had nothing to do with climate action,” he said.
Only the US has published comparable figures for 2020. In February, before Mr Morrison made his claims, the Environmental Protection Agency released data that showed a 21.5 per cent drop in net emissions when compared against 2005 levels.
Japan has released preliminary figures for 2020, which indicated gross emissions were down 16.8 per cent compared to 2005 and down 5.1 per cent on 2019 levels. It did not publish preliminary data on net emissions, however if the annual percentage reduction in gross emissions was applied to the country’s UN-reported 2019 figure for net emissions they would be 14.7 per cent lower in 2020 than 2005.
Neither New Zealand nor Canada had released 2020 emissions data at the time of writing, however they were unlikely to reach a 20 per cent net emissions reduction on 2005 levels based on their 2019 data. Both primarily focus on gross rather than net emissions in their national figures.
Prof Adams said that comparing emissions between countries was difficult as “there are a million and one ways” for figures to be interpreted, flagging land use as one issue.
“Land use gets included because it is advantageous for Australia to do so,” he said. “Land use emissions are falling, which is partly to do with reporting methods rather than action. Typically, countries don’t use land use-inclusive numbers.”
Focusing on gross rather than net emissions sees Australia fall behind all the countries named by Mr Morrison. According to the UN’s 2019 data set, Australia’s gross emissions had increased by four per cent since 2005, compared to reductions of 0.2 per cent for New Zealand, 1.1 per cent for Canada, 11.6 per cent for the US and 12.2 per cent for Japan.
Experts previously told AAP FactCheck net emissions were a good metric for calculating the overall impact of emissions on the atmosphere, however the same experts also highlighted flaws in accounting for land use changes. One, University of Melbourne earth sciences professor Peter Rayner, noted the long-term potential of relying on these carbon sinks was also limited because “we can’t plant the same forest twice”.
AAP FactCheck examined a similar claim by the prime minister in February when he said Australia’s reduction in carbon emissions since 2005 was “broadly in line” with that of the European Union.
Based on comparing countries’ net emissions, Mr Morrison is likely correct that Australia’s 20 per cent reduction between 2005 and 2020 is greater than that in Japan, Canada and New Zealand between 2005 and 2020, although only 2019 data is currently available for those countries. However, the prime minister incorrectly stated that Australia had cut emissions by more than the United States, which in fact reduced net emissions by 21.5 per cent between 2005 and 2020.
If the same countries are compared based on gross emissions – the preferred metric several use – Australia is the worst-performer and the only one of the countries to increase emissions between 2005 and 2019.
Mixture – The claim includes accurate information but also significant errors or problems.
* Editor’s note: AAP FactCheck has expanded its ability to fact-check environmental issues with the support of the Australian Conservation Foundation. AAP FactCheck retains full editorial independence in this project and continues to apply the rigorous standards required for accredited members of the International Fact-Checking Network.