Eraring power station

Are Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions insignificant?

Doubtless you’ve heard the argument. Australia is a small country in population, so reducing our emissions by moving to renewable energy won’t make any difference globally. Especially as China is still building new thermal power stations.

What are the facts?

Quick answer

Australia is one of the world’s highest greenhouse gas emitters, in total and per capita. We have the opportunity and responsibility to do far better but have so far ignored our obligations. If medium sized countries like Australia don’t play our part, the world won’t avert the major impacts of climate change.

Australians used to be known for a “fair go”. But not on climate. We are bludging on the world. China is doing better than Australia, but more is needed.


In this post I have used carbon dioxide emissions as a measure of greenhouse gas emissions. For an explanation why this choice, and which sources I have used, see this note.

Australia’s emissions in a global context

Australia emits about 1.1% of the world’s CO2 atmospheric CO2 emissions. At first sight, this seems insignificant. But there are several reasons why we should still be reducing these emissions.

Australia is the 15th highest emitter

The top 20 emitters are:

Total CO2
emissions
Percent of
global total
Cumulative
percent
1China10,66830.6%30.6%
2United States4,71313.5%44.2%
3India2,4427.0%51.2%
4Russia1,5774.5%55.7%
5Japan1,0313.0%58.7%
6Iran7452.1%60.8%
7Germany6441.9%62.7%
8Saudi Arabia6261.8%64.5%
9South Korea5981.7%66.2%
10Indonesia5901.7%67.9%
11Canada5361.5%69.4%
12Brazil4671.3%70.8%
13South Africa4521.3%72.1%
14Turkey3931.1%73.2%
15Australia3921.1%74.3%
16Mexico3571.0%75.4%
17United Kingdom3300.9%76.3%
18Italy3040.9%77.2%
19Poland3000.9%78.0%
20Kazakhstan2910.8%78.9%
Total CO2 emission (in millions of tonnes) of the world’s highest CO2 emitting countries (Our World in Data)

For Australia to be exempt from having to reduce emissions (as claimed), the minimum level for taking action would be set at 2%. If so, only 6 countries would be required to take action and only 60% of the world’s emissions would be addressed. This would put an even greater burden on those 6 countries (almost doubling their reductions, if that was possible). They would reasonably refuse to act unless others joined in.

Fairness & equity

Fairness requires that all people and all countries play a equitable part in reducing emissions and meeting the climate challenge. There are two ways in which equity might be measured.

1. Per capita emissions

Assessing emissions per capita and setting reductions accordingly means each country, regardless of size, would be required to reduce its per capita emissions to the “safe level”.

Per capita, Australia is the world’s 11th largest emitter, and the second highest of those on the above list – only Saudi Arabia is higher than Australia in both total and per capita emissions. Here are the per capita emissions for the top 15 per capita emitters and for the top 15 total emitters.

CountryPer capita
emissions
1Qatar37.0
2New Caledonia30.4
3Mongolia27.0
4Trinidad and Tobago25.4
5Brunei23.2
6Kuwait20.8
7Bahrain20.5
8Curacao20.3
9Saudi Arabia18.0
10Kazakhstan15.5
11Australia15.4
12United Arab Emirates15.2
13Sint Maarten14.5
14USA14.2
15Canada14.2
Top 12 CO2 emitters per capita (tonnes)
CountryPer capita
emissions
China7.4
USA14.2
India1.8
Russia10.8
Japan8.1
Iran8.9
Germany7.7
Saudi Arabia18.0
South Korea11.7
Indonesia2.2
Canada14.2
Brazil2.2
South Africa7.6
Turkey4.7
Australia15.4
Per capita CO2 emissions (tonnes)
of worlds largest emitters

Thus it is clear that Australia is among the world’s worst CO2 emitters. If anything is to be done (and it must!), Australia should be among the first, not the among the worst!

If we take into account the populations of the countries who are emitting more than Australia, we can say that the average Australian is among the worst 1.2% of CO2 polluters in the entire world. We can and must do better!

2. Historical contribution to atmospheric CO2

Another way to look at this question is to see who has contributed most to increased atmospheric CO2 since the industrial revolution. Countries that have historically emitted more should arguably accept more responsibility to reduce emissions soon.

Here are the top 20 CO2 emitting countries since the industrial revolution.

EmissionsPercent of
world total
1United States41724.6%
2China23613.9%
3Russia1156.8%
4Germany935.5%
5United Kingdom784.6%
6Japan663.9%
7India543.2%
8France392.3%
9Canada342.0%
10Ukraine311.8%
11Poland281.6%
12Italy251.5%
13South Africa211.2%
14Mexico201.2%
15Iran191.1%
16Australia191.1%
17South Korea181.1%
18Brazil161.0%
19Saudi Arabia160.9%
20Spain150.9%
Cumulative CO2 emissions (in billions of tonnes) since 1750 of the worlds largest emitting countries (Our World in Data)

Australia again contributes 1.1% of the total, Western countries like USA, Germany, UK, France and Spain move up the list, while China and India move down. It is easy to understand that western industrialised countries have been emitting high levels of CO2 for longer than the “newer” economies.

This again is an argument that Australia should clearly be part of emission reduction, indeed, leading it.

China’s place in emission reduction

At just over 1.4 billion, China is the world’s most populous country, just ahead of India. And it is modernising fast. That means it is the largest CO2 emitter, but emits far less per capita than more industrialised countries.

There are things to like and not to like about China’s performance on emission reduction.

Negatively, China is building many new thermal power stations, and its CO2 emissions are likely to keep rising for some years to come.

But on the positive side:

  • China’s per capita emissions are lower than most industrialised countries.
  • It has committed to net zero by 2060.
  • It is the world’s leading installer of renewable energy generation.
  • Renewable sources account for about 28% of China’s energy, more than Australia and in the middle of the range of all countries.

We can therefore say that China is not doing enough to reduce its emissions, but is a more responsible global citizen than Australia is.

Conclusions

If the world is going to effectively combat climate change, every country needs to play its part, beginning with those whose per capita emissions are highest and whose historical missions have been high. Australia is in that category, and should be doing much more than it is. If Australia and other smaller countries don’t play their part in emissions reduction, it won’t happen.

It would assist the world greatly if China reduced its CO2 emissions faster than is planned.

Note:

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, but other gases suich as nitrous oxide and methane also contribute. I have chosen to use CO2 as a measure of greenhouse gases because it makes up the bulk of combined greenhouse gases, it gives similar country rankings, and much more data is available for CO2 than for combined greenhouse gases.

I have used two main sources, Our World in Data (OWD) and World Population Review (WPR) because they have been fact checked and found to be highly factual and only slightly biased (OWD) and mostly factual and least biased (WPR).

Photo: Eraring power station in NSW, Australias largest single thermal power station (CSIRO via Wikipedia).

3 Comments

  1. Reality is, we emit 1.1% of the food vegitation loves, CO2, without we all die.

    We do not need to do a thing.

    1. Hi David, do you not understand that while CO2 may be necessary for plants, the amount in the atmosphere now is quite sufficient for them, but more will be harmful to earth as a whole? Can you explain to me what you think about the way CO2 stores heat? Thanks.

  2. CO2 has a very limited heat storage ability, but, 420ppm is veery low for plants.
    Not long ago we were close to a CO2 drought, now its safe but 1,000ppm would be better, the earth would be greener by far, industrial fertalizers would be less used, the word a better place.
    We are constantly bombarded with doom and gloom, 1922 as far as I know was the first cry of melting ice, where very soon coastal reigions will be uninhabitable from rising seas.
    Green house keeper try to keep approx 1500ppm CO2 because of such accelerated growth, free growth.
    People say silly things, oh plant trees, they store CO2, the take in huge quanntities for photosynthesis, and the sam artists perpetuate this misinformation, because, as you surely must know, respiration sees approx 50% of the CO2 taken in during the day, exhumed at night, the other is stored, and released when the tree dies and rots.
    Grow trees, cut them down and build houses, stored CO2.
    I see so many climate alarmists waffling on, most have no idea, just want to see their name up on the tabloids.
    You pose interesting thoughtful discussion points.

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