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Grumpy / Emissions targets in the eye of the beholder

Smoke from the Orroral Valley Fire looms over the parched Kaveneys Road, off the Barton Highway, 35 kilometres away from the fire in January, 20, 2020. Photo: Andrew Campbell

Reader LEON ARUNDELL offers a Grumpy column around the way he thinks the ACT government is creatively meeting its emissions targets. 

Greenhouse emissions in the ACT in 2020 were about three times as great as they were in 1990. The ACT government claims that it met its legislated emissions target for 2020. That claim is based on creative accounting.

Emissions are called Scope 1 emissions if they occur within the ACT. They are called Scope 2 emissions if they occur outside the ACT, from producing electricity that is used within the ACT. They are called Scope 3 emissions if they occur outside the ACT, from producing other goods and services that are used within the ACT.

The CSIRO and the Universities of Sydney and NSW estimated that Scope 3 emissions made up 83 per cent of the ACT’s carbon footprint in 2018. 

ACT Greenhouse Gas Inventories don’t include Scope 3 emissions. They show that in 1990 the ACT caused two million tonnes of Scope 2 emissions and one million tonnes of Scope 1 emissions.

The ACT’s legislated interim emissions target for 2020 was, “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the ACT [ie Scope 1 emissions] to 40 per cent less than 1990 emissions by June 30 2020.”

So the 2020 target was 0.6 million tonnes of Scope 1 emissions.

The 2020 inventory reports zero Scope 2 emissions and 1.5 million tonnes of Scope 1 emissions.

On that basis, we exceeded our legislated target by 150 per cent.

But the recent State of the Environment Report claims that “the ACT met its legislated 2020 emissions target.”

That claim assumes that the 1990 baseline for emissions “in the ACT” included both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions.

The report says that the January 2019 Orroral Valley bushfire burned almost 90,000 hectares. I estimate that it caused 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions. 

The 2020 inventory report says that changes to methodology for native forests “consist of including in the inventory for the first time the effects of forest fires and subsequent vegetation regrowth”.

But the 2020 inventory report excluded emissions from the Orroral Valley bushfire. It reported a total of minus 97,000 tonnes of emissions from land use, land use change and forestry.

If the report had included emissions from the Orroral Valley bushfire, it would have reported about three million tonnes of Scope 1 emissions. The government would not have been able to claim that it had met its legislated target, even if it included both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions in its 1990 baseline.

The 2021-22 inventory explained that, “emissions associated with the 2019-20 bushfires were excluded from Australia’s national inventories under the natural disturbances provision”. 

The Morrison government used the natural disturbances provision as an excuse to exclude emissions from all “large, infrequent bushfires that are beyond human control,” irrespective of whether they occurred as a result of natural causes or – as happened in the Orroral Valley – as a result of human activity.

That policy carries the bizarre implication that, if we allow small bushfires to rage out of control, we can exclude their emissions from our emissions inventories.

Leon Arundell has degrees in science and environmental studies. He worked for nine years in the Australian Greenhouse Office.

Grumpy is an occasional 300-word (or less) column available to any reader. Submit to

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