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Good News / Bad News

Coronavirus shows we can change our entire way of life. Will we?

My home-schooling first grader

- I'm not ever going back to school. I'll just learn at home with you and Daddy and the puppy dogs.


- Yesterday you missed school so much, you built Hogwarts out leaves and branches. Let's hold off on any long-term decision making.

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Year of the Face Mask

Like everyone else, I am thoroughly sick of 2020. My last blog came at the end of a season of climate chaos. In Canberra, we kept bushfires at bay but the smoke killed at least 31 people. I didn't have time to pack away the face masks before the next crisis hit.

On a global scale, Coronavirus is more devastating than Australia's bushfires. But my feelings about this disaster are more nuanced. There's bad news, but also good.

Around the world, there are 1.5 million infections, almost 100,000 deaths and billions suffering in isolation. But unlike the fires and smoke, it's left the plants, animals and ecosystems in tact. Tech is booming. Our right-wing government churns out New Green programs daily. Mutual Aid communities are popping up to bring us together while we're apart. We've cut back or gone cold-turkey on many of the modern addictions that create climate change, like flights and fuel. We've transformed our lifestyles overnight and looked after one another while doing it. The cause is horrible but the outcome gives me hope.

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Handbag for the Apocalypse? Sanitiser, emergency snack, disaster apps and mask of your choice.

How are Australia's emissions going? Here's the bad news

The Australian Federal Government maintains a quarterly report on our National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. This tracks carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). I ask a lot of questions about this data, but instead of answering my last batch, the government decided it was easier to shift their entire base operations and change their address. I'm sympathetic. I've ended relationships in the same way.

Fortunately, I have data stalker skills. I managed to track down the new agency and extract answers after a mere three months of pestering. I'll start with the bad news.

Our emissions barely changed from September 2018 to September 2019. We generated a whopping footprint of 21.7 tonnes of CO2e per person per year. Most experts agree that the planet can support lifestyles of between one and five tonnes per person per year, so we're not doing well.

This official tally is huge and it grossly underestimates Australia's impact. It omits off-shore emissions from coal and gas exports. Those will at least be counted in other countries' tallies, but without a local incentive to cut back, I don't see how our export industries will ever shift to greener pastures like hydrogen.

The tally also omits overseas flights into, out of and by Australians. These aren't counted anywhere at all. Thanks for that, airline lobby. How many billions do you want from the public purse to bail out your massively polluting industry?

Summer's bushfires released vast amounts of CO2e into the atmosphere. This is climate change driving climate change. We are now in a feedback loop. The next report is due in May 2020 and it might tell us how much CO2e those fires generated. Then again, it might not. Ironically, our key climate change report operates under the pre-climate change assumption that extreme bushfires are rare and the land recovers perfectly afterwards.

Here's some good news that's also bad news

Agricultural emissions dropped by 4.1 million tonnes of CO2e. It wasn't through good policy. Climate-change induced drought and floods killed livestock and reduced fertilser use for crops. We didn't improve our practices. We suffered the consequences of those practices. So did countless plants and animals.

The actual good news

Here's the real good news. Emissions can drop with good management. I know this from personal experience, having slashed over 77% from the average footprint with simple changes. I'm delighted to see that it works at scale.

Our emissions from electricity dropped by 3.6 million tonnes. This small but significant 2% cut is because we're using more solar and less coal to make our electricity. The ACT has switched to 100% renewables and we have the second-lowest electricity prices in the country. Both the tech and the economics work. If we achieve this nationally, we'll cut 180 million tonnes of CO2e and start down that mythical road to sustainable living.

The federal government introduced a consumption-based inventory alongside its production-based inventory. This includes things consumed in Australia but made elsewhere. It will certainly help us track our carbon footprint. It still omits international flights and freight, but it's actively considering the question (take that, airline lobby!) The new dataset runs some rubbery figures that use a 2016-17 baseline which somehow intuits data from a decade earlier, but it's a good start. It shows household consumption is slowly declining. We simply need to speed up the reductions and expand them to mining, exports and industry.

The good news that's bad

The next report is due in May 2020. I'm betting it will show a decline in emissions. If so, it will be thanks to Coronavirus and the recession it causes. Personally, I would prefer cuts from policy rather than plague, but with feedback loops already biting, I'll take what I can get.

What happens next?

We're all experiencing a fundamental lifestyle shift. Some of it is ghastly but some is great. We also know how much and how fast we can change, if we choose to.

Like any addiction, there's a risk we'll rebound. So let's all agree that post-virus, we'll use our new powers for good. Let's Zoom instead of jumping on a plane. Let's make meaning and care in local communities instead of filling the void with mindless consumption. Let's aim for a better year in 2021.

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Notes and data in 'Notes' section for 'Good News / Bad News'.