Australia's Emissions in Context: Our Present Responsibility

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 5 June 2011
Filed under Carbon Reduction

Australia's sum total of historical emissions places us near the top of the world's polluters. Despite our small population and the relatively small size of our economy, across history, we have emitted more CO2 from burning of fossil fuels than 94% of all other countries.

This fact provides some much-needed context for the present debate surrounding a price on carbon.

There is however, plenty of further context that needs to be provided for our emissions. For example, we should examine how our use of renewables has been evolving over time. The figure below, taken from a report for Environment Victoria shows how the share of renewables—such as wind or solar—in generating electricity in Australia has actually declined since 1960.

Yes, whereas we generated 19% of our power from renewables in 1960, we are now down around the 7% mark. Lest one think that this is inevitable, the next figure shows our share (from 2008; thin red line) against the trend for Denmark (the solid data points).

This graph leaves little doubt that it is possible to increasingly rely on sources other than fossil fuels to power an economy. Just in case you are wondering, during the period shown in the graph above, Denmark's economy grew by around 44% altogether. So "green" energy and economic growth are fully compatible, although one will be forgiven for not realizing this by relying on the Australian media alone.

There is one more interesting context that we should consider for Australian greenhouse gas emissions during power generation. And that is the amount of CO2 emitted during the production of a kWH (a kilowatt hour, worth between 20c - 40c at current power prices). This is an important statistic because it goes beyond simply stating the share of renewables by also considering how "dirty" the non-renewables are. Coal is never "clean", but it can be more or less dirty, depending on its quality, and the relative share of coal vs. gas also determines how much CO2 is emitted during power production even if the share of renewables is constant. So how much CO2 do we emit per unit of power generated?

The answer is shown as a large red data point in the figure below, based on data from the International Energy Agency.


What this figure shows is the approximately 140 countries in this data set rank ordered from worst emitters to least, based on grams of CO2 per kWh generated. There are three countries that emit more CO2 than us; they are Botswana, Cambodia, and India. The remainder use less—sometimes considerably less.

Yes, we beat Botswana, Cambodia, and India. All other developing countries, and of course all industrialized nations, beat us, sometimes by a considerable margin.

For example,New Zealand emits nearly 5 times less than we do to generate the same power—remember, this is the same unit power; we gain absolutely nothing from polluting more.

We emit 20 times more than Sweden—and Swedes don't live in caves, unless you consider Volvos and Saabs to be caves.

If that weren't bad enough, we emit 128 times more than Norway.

Let's summarize the context of our emissions:

  • Our historical burden of per capita emissions places us within the top ten polluters.
  • We have decreased our share of renewables during the last 20 years whereas many other industrialized countries have increased theirs (together with GDP).
  • We emit 128 times more than Norway per unit power generated and 20 times more than Sweden
  • But yes, we beat three developing countries.

While this may not be much reason to celebrate just yet, the good news is that unless we consider ourselves inherently inferior to Skandinavians, we have a very clear precedent to follow. Being at least as sun-drenched and wind-swept as any other country on this planet, there can be no stopping us once we decide to catch up.

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