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Tuesday 16 December 2014

Is Australia one of the worst net emitters in the OECD?

In my earlier post "Is Australia Good for the environment?" I looked at Australia's net CO2 emissions taking into account both the CO2 contained in imports and exports and the impact of absorption by trees. The result was perhaps a surprise, given the common focus on per capita emissions. Australia as a country is a not an emitter of CO2 at all, it is a net absorber of CO2.

In this post my focus is how Australia's CO2 net emissions compare to other countries in the OECD?".

Limitation of the data

I have used only the four sources listed under Table 3 below. While there is an abundance of data on CO2 emissions, these are often not directly comparable arising from different years and/or using different definitions of emissions. 

In order to use just a few sources my calculations have assumed land area is constant. All other data relates specifically to 2009, only because this was available. Also while I would have preferred to use consumption emissions as opposed to production emissions, I could not find consumption-emission data for the OECD countries for 2009. Consumption-emissions take into consideration the CO2 content of exported or imported products, and therefore better reflect the emissions for which any country should be held responsible. 

Without consumption-emission data, the net emission of countries that tend to import CO2 intensive products is understated and those that export is overstated. European countries and the US tend to have their net emissions understated while China's net emissions are overstated.

Despite this shortcoming I feel the results are a good qualitative indicator of the ranking of the countries in the OECD. Almost all ranking of countries as to their CO2 use is made on the basis of production-emissions. So in this sense the current rankings are no different.

In order to provide a world perspective, I have included non-OECD countries China and Russia. Any statistic that omits  these countries would not be complete. 

Russia, Canada Australia are the lowest net emitters

Table 1 shows the top and bottom 5 total net emitters in the OECD+ .

Country Net Emissions MtCO2 (2009)
Highest net emitters China 5,890
United States 2,394
Japan 845
Germany 652
United Kingdom 491
Lowest net emitters Sweden -257
Mexico -266
Australia -1,053
Canada -2,560
Russia -6,191

Table 1 Top 5 and bottom 5 Net Emissions countries 

Not surprisingly China and the United States lead the list, easily outpacing the subsequent largest net emitters, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. The focus on per capita emissions tends to distract us from the critical total emissions figures. Yet, any decrease in world emissions will only be achieved if there is strong compliance by these major emitters.

Perhaps surprisingly Russia, Canada and Australia are at the bottom of the list. Mostly due to their large land area and level of forestation they absorb more CO2 than they emit. With negative net emissions they are net absorbers of CO2.

But the results are really not surprising at all. Countries with large land area will absorb CO2 often more than compensating for otherwise large CO2 emissions. Countries with small land area and large populations will absorb little and generate a lot of CO2 emissions. These mainly European countries will fare well with per capita measures and not surprisingly tend to favour these.

Canada, Australia, Russia are also lowest per capita net emitters

The per capita net emissions are also interesting. The top per capita emitters are small industrialised countries with low populations, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium and Israel. (see Table 2)

Country Net emissions per capita Mt CO2 (2009)
Highest net emitters
per capita 
Luxembourg 19.5
Netherlands 14.8
Belgium 12.1
Israel 9.0
South Korea 9.4


United States 7.8


China 4.3

Lowest net emitters
per capita

Sweden -27.7
Finland -33.9
Russia -43.3
Australia -48.6
Canada -75.9

Table 2 Top 5 and bottom 5 Net Emission per capita plus US and China

The lowest net emitters per capita are the countries with large land area and low populations, Canada, Australia and Russia. China with its very large population and the US with a relatively large population move into the middle of the pack, with the US now well ahead of China. This is a result of the large difference in their populations.

For completeness I have included table 3 the full list of OECD countries showing the data used in the calculations including the source of the data.

Country Forested Area (sq kms) % of total land area Absorption (Mt CO2) Emissions Mt CO2 (2009) Net Emissions (MtCO2) Population (Million -2009) Net emisssions per capita t CO2 (2009)
Luxembourg 870 33.6% 1 11 10 0.5 19.5
Netherlands 3,650 8.8% 4 249 245 16.5 14.8
Belgium 6,607 21.6% 7 137 131 10.8 12.1
South Korea 63,940 64.0% 64 528 464 49.2 9.4
Israel 1,600 7.0% 2 70 69 7.6 9.0
United Kingdom 28,650 11.8% 29 520 491 60.9 8.1
Denmark 5,171 12.0% 5 50 44 5.5 8.0
Germany 113,176 31.7% 113 766 652 81.9 8.0
United States 3,030,890 30.8% 3,031 5,425 2,394 306.8 7.8
Iceland 1,030 1.0% 1 3 2 0.3 7.5
Japan 253,203 67.0% 253 1,098 845 127.5 6.6
Czech Republic 26,000 34.0% 26 95 69 10.5 6.6
Poland 90,000 28.8% 90 286 196 38.2 5.1
Italy 106,736 35.0% 107 408 301 60.2 5.0
China 1,821,000 18.2% 1,821 7,711 5,890 1,359.8 4.3
Switzerland 12,425 30.8% 12 46 33 7.7 4.3
Austria 39,600 47.2% 40 69 30 8.3 3.6
Hungary 18,513 19.9% 19 50 32 10.0 3.1
Slovakia 20,006 40.8% 20 36 16 5.4 2.9
Greece 68,732 38.4% 69 100 32 11.2 2.8
France 246,640 36.8% 247 397 150 62.6 2.4
Slovenia 12,574 60.0% 13 17 5 2.0 2.4
Portugal 32,400 36.5% 32 57 24 10.6 2.3
Spain 283,007 56.0% 283 330 47 45.9 1.0
Turkey 216,781 27.6% 217 253 36 72.0 0.5
Mexico 710,000 36.5% 710 444 -266 112.9 -2.4
Estonia 23,066 61.0% 23 17 -6 1.3 -4.2
Chile 158,781 21.0% 159 66 -93 16.9 -5.5
New Zealand 85,424 31.9% 85 39 -46 4.3 -10.7
Norway 93,870 29.0% 94 40 -54 4.8 -11.2
Sweden 307,850 76.0% 308 51 -257 9.3 -27.7
Finland 233,320 72.0% 233 52 -181 5.3 -33.9
Russia 7,762,602 45.4% 7,763 1,572 -6,191 142.8 -43.3
Australia 1,470,832 19.0% 1,471 418 -1,053 21.7 -48.6
Canada 3,101,340 31.1% 3,101 541 -2,560 33.7 -75.9

Table 3 showing Total Net Emissions and Per Capita Net Emissions of CO2 
for OECD countries plus China and Russia in 2009 

1. The population data was taken from http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=POP_FIVE_HIST
4. Absorption rate used in the calculations is 10 tons CO2 per year per hectare. This is a more conservative 25 tons CO2 per year per hectare that is quoted in Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005, Contents/Environment/Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

A note of caution

While I am comfortable with the broad thrust of the net emissions calculations, I have some reservations. 

The conversion of 'Forested Land area' to 'CO2 absorbed' is the most contentious part of the calculations. I have used a single figure of 10 tons CO2 absorbed per year per hectare. This is a significant simplification and the real story is much more complex. Absorption rates vary depending  on a number of factors including the species of tree, the local climate, etc. and would therefore vary by country. A proper accounting for this would no doubt lead to some changes in the figures and possibly the rank of some countries. 

The absorption rate I used was derived by starting at the 'ideal' 25 tCO2 per yr per hectare indicated in the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia. When this was used the total net emissions for all OECD countries was negative, ie the OECD absorbed more emissions than it produced. Not likely. I gradually decreased the absorption rate till the total net emissions in the OECD was positive. This resulted to the absorption rate of 10 tCO2/yr/hectare and is significantly less than quoted in the ABS reference. While the figure is conservative, when compared to the ABS statistic, it need not be accurate.
I would welcome feedback on this. Given a new average absorption rate or indeed different rates for different countries the tables could be recalculated.


While bearing these reservations in mind, the calculations have shown;- 

  • China, US, Japan, Germany and the UK are the largest net emitters and their success /commitment to reductions in emissions is crucial to meeting any world targets. If these countries don't comply then their emissions will swamp all other countries' emission reduction efforts
  • Russia, Canada, and Australia are the lowest net emitters and they contribute to cleaning the emissions of the net emitting countries.
  • Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Israel and South Korea are the highest per capita net emitters. These are all small highly industrialised countries with relatively high population density
  • Canada, Australia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, are the lowest per capita net emitters. These countries all have relatively large land area and low population density
With respect to my original question, on a net emissions basis, irrespective whether it be total or per capita, Australia is a net absorber of CO2 and hence is cleaning up the emissions of other countries in the OECD.

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