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Tuesday 11 November 2014

Is Australia good for the environment?

Australia is "one of the dirtiest, most greenhouse emitting countries in the OECD group of developed countries." Stephen Sackur

The quote above is from Stephen Sackur of the BBC's Hardtalk in his aggressive interview targeted at our Joe Hockey (Full transcript of the interview here.) 

The implication is clear. Australia is a bad polluter, and, indeed, a worse polluter than other OECD countries. Certainly the label is rarely challenged, and tacitly accepted. 

But is it true? Is Australia, as a country, a worse polluter than the US, or Japan, or indeed other OECD countries?

If Australia is a 'polluter', then our planet would be less 'polluted' if Australia were somehow totally removed from it.

I guess we cannot just remove Australia in deed, but we can in thought. Lets remove the impact of Australia from the world and see what savings we make in greenhouse pollution.

Australia's net contribution to world green house gases comprises the CO2 we generate as a result of our consumption of goods and services, less the amount of CO2 we remove from the atmosphere due to our vegetation; trees and grassland. For a full definition see table 1 below.

'Consumption' Emissions of Carbon Dioxide

  • Production Emissions within Australia from all sources. This includes  electricity generation , transport, industry, mining, etc.
  • Plus the Carbon Dioxide component of all products we import. After all someone else had to generate carbon dioxide in order to manufacture these goods and since Australia is no longer present, these goods are not required and the carbon dioxide is no longer generated
  • Less Carbon Dioxide generated in the manufacture of all our exports. If Australia were removed then the countries receiving our exports would have to get them from somewhere else, and there is no need to believe that their alternative source would generate lower Carbon Dioxide. 
Reductions of Carbon Dioxide

  • the carbon dioxide that is absorbed within Australia due to trees, vegetation etc.. Again, if we were to remove Australia from the earth, we would have to remove the impact of the Trees and grassland on the Australian continent which absorbs Carbon Dioxide.

Data, data everywhere

There is an abundance of data on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions, by country by year. Unfortunately the data is not always directly comparable. Some data includes only carbon dioxide, whereas other figures include other greenhouse gases, methane, nitrous oxide, etc. Similarly the rates of absorption of greenhouse gases varies by the type of vegetation, trees vs grasslands, and indeed all these rates are subject to some debate. 

For my calculations I have used just the few sources listed at the bottom of this page.  While they are a bit dated, 2004, and some may feel they are not quite correct for whatever reason. Nevertheless, the conclusions would not be affected by the relatively small changes that have taken place in the last decade, nor indeed even by large differences in the various figures used in the calculations.

There has been considerable debate regarding the measure that should be used when ranking countries as to their greenhouse gas emissions. Convention is to use emissions generated within a country. The alternative, and, arguably, more rational measure, is to use the so-called 'consumption emissions'.These start with the emissions generated within a country but are adjusted for the CO2 content of imports and exports as specified in Table 1. Indeed it is the availability of Consumption Emission data that has made the calculation of Australia's net emissions readily calculable.

The calculations are shown in table 2 below.

Datum Value Unit Source
Consumption emissions per person /yr 16.7 tonnes CO2 Ref[1]
Population (2004) 20.1 million Ref[2] 
Total Consumption emissions 336 MtCO2/yr

Australia Land area 7,633,565 sq kms Ref[3]
Percentage covered by forest 19 percent Ref[4]
Area covered by forests 1,450,377 sq kms
Absorption of CO2 per hectare of forest/yr 25 tonnes/hectare Ref[5]
Total Absorption 3,626 MtCO2/yr

Net Emissions -3,290 MtCO2/yr

Myth is Busted!

The emissions of CO2 based on the consumption of goods and services in Australia in 2004 amounted to 336 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2. Whereas the absorption of CO2 by vegetation on the Australian continent were ten times greater at 3,626 Mt of CO2. The net emissions were a negative 3,290 MtCO2 or Australia is a net absorber of CO2.

It turns out that Australia with its large land area and low population is not a 'polluter' at all. In fact it absorbs more than 10 times as much CO2 as it emits. 

Without Australia, our planet would be far, far worse off, from a greenhouse emissions viewpoint. 

Perhaps, given the often stated label that Australia is "one of the dirtiest, most greenhouse emitting countries in the OECD" (Stephen Sackur), these results are surprising. Perhaps Mr Sackur was really talking about per capita emissions, and was ignoring the absorption of greenhouse gases or indeed the impact of exports and imports. Irrespective of the measure he meant, Australia is not a polluter at all, absorbing more CO2 than it emits.

Per Capita measures are misleading 

While this result does not disprove the claim that the 'per capita' emissions by Australians are relatively high, it brings into question the validity of such 'per capita' measures. 
Since governments are responsible not just for the emissions due to their population but also due to their land use, ranking of countries needs to look at both emissions and absorption by the country as a whole. On this basis Australia is clearly helping to clean the emissions from other parts of the world. 

But wait there is more...

On a net emissions basis, I am guessing, Australia is one of the best performers in the OECD.  But how does Australia really compare? 

I will leave that for another day.


1. Steven J. Davis and Ken Cadeira, PNAS, Sustainability Science Portal, March 23, 2010, vol.107,no 12, 5687-5692,"Consumpion-based accounting of CO2 emissions" 

2. Australian Bureau of Statistics,3311.0.55.001 - Demography,Australia, 2004 Final

3. Wikipedia, List of Countries by Area

4. Australia forestation, Wikipedia -Forest of Australia

5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005, Contents/Environment/Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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