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Election FactCheck: is Australia among the only major advanced economies where pollution levels are going up?

Was Labor’s shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, right to say Australia was ‘pretty much’ the only major advanced economies where greenhouse pollution levels are going up? AAP/Stefan Postles

Election FactCheck: is Australia among the only major advanced economies where pollution levels are going up?

Australia is now pretty much the only major advanced economy where pollution levels are going up, not coming down. – Labor shadow minister for the environment, climate change and water, Mark Butler, speech to the National Press Club, May 18, 2016.

During a debate with environment minister Greg Hunt, Labor’s shadow environment minister Mark Butler said that Australia is “pretty much” the only major advanced economy where pollution levels are rising.

Is he right?

Checking the sources

When asked for data to support his assertion, a spokesperson for Butler referred The Conversation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN agency that oversees international climate negotiations. The spokesperson also referred us to the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggests that by pollution he meant “greenhouse gas emissions”. However, the spokesperson did not specify what data set the statement was based upon, nor what Butler defined as a “major advanced economy”.

The IMF defines a “major advanced economy” as the G7 nations (and Australia is not among its members). In this FactCheck, we aim to compare Australia’s emissions with a range of advanced economies including the G7 member countries, the EU bloc and a selection of others such as Iceland, Korea and New Zealand.

The Conversation also asked over what time period pollution levels were “going up” according to Butler, but didn’t hear back before deadline.

Nevertheless, there are some obvious data sets against which Butler’s statement can be tested.

How are Australia’s emissions trending?

Greenhouse gas emissions inventory data released in May by the Department of Environment show that Australia’s emissions (excluding land use, land use change and forestry or LULUCF) rose by 0.4% between December 2014 and December 2015. Emissions rose 1.1% if land-use and forestry emissions are included.

The report included the following graph:

National Greenhouse Gas Inventory (excluding Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry), annual, ‘unadjusted’ emissions, 2005 to 2015. Department of Environment

The graph shows that Australian emissions have essentially stagnated over the past decade. The data shows a slight decrease from 2012 to 2014 and then an increase from 2014 to 2015.

So Butler was right to suggest that Australia’s emissions are on the rise, based on the latest 12-month snapshot. But is Australia the only advanced economy where that’s happening?

How are other countries’ emissions trending?

It turns out it’s not so easy to see if other advanced economies had an emissions rise between 2014 and 2015. There simply isn’t enough accurate global data available to do that comparison for such a recent and short time period.

To compare the most recent greenhouse gas emissions data (excluding land-use and forestry for which accounting rules vary) between countries, we used the PRIMAPHIST data set produced by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

This composite data set uses widely recognised data sources, including data from the UNFCCC and other UN agencies. It contains greenhouse gas data (aggregated in a standardised way) for all countries.

For developed countries, the data is extracted from national reports to the United Nations. For other countries, sources of data vary and more details are available here.

As we said, there’s not enough recent data available to see if Australia is the only country where emissions rose between 2014 and 2015. However, we can compare Australia’s emissions trends with other countries’ emissions trends over a longer time interval – between 2000 and 2014 (the latest credible data available).

When we check what the PRIMAPHIST data shows about how Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions compare over that time frame with some of the other advanced economies (with the 28 European Union member states included as a bloc), here’s how it looks:

Don’t be deceived by what may appear to be a low level of Australian emissions (the blue line). It’s an illusion. In fact, Australia is among highest per capita emitters.

A more telling way to determine how greenhouse gas trends have changed over time is to look at emissions as a percentage of 2000 levels. Crunched this way, here’s how Australian emissions between 2000 and 2014 look when compared with a selection of advanced economies.

Australian emissions in 2014 were at 110.1% of the level they were in 2000. EU emissions in 2014 were at 82.43% of the level they were at in 2000. Calculations exclude emissions resulting from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) because there is no sufficiently reliable standardised accounting of LULUCF.

Our analysis of the PRIMAPHIST data shows that:

  • Australia’s emissions rose fairly steadily until 2008 and have more or less stagnated since then.
  • Overall emissions for the G7 economies (with the EU member states grouped together) have been decreasing, mostly since 2007, and in 2014 were 8.9% below 2000 levels.
  • EU emissions show a strong decreasing trend.
  • Emissions from Canada, Japan and the United States show large fluctuations since 2008.
  • Australia’s emissions in 2014 were above those in 2000 – and this is unusual among advanced economies, but not unique.
  • Emissions from Korea, Iceland and New Zealand were also higher in 2014 than they were in 2000.

What is most relevant, however, is what Australia’s emissions will do between now and 2030 and whether each nation is doing its fair share to limit global warming.

Verdict

Whether or not Butler was right really depends on what time frame you’re looking at.

Government data shows that from 2014 to 2015, Australia’s emissions increased but we can’t say for sure if Australia was “pretty much” the only major advanced economy that experienced a rise that year. There’s not sufficient reliable comparative data available for that year.

Zooming out to check longer-term trends, we know that Australia’s emissions in 2014 were above those in 2000. This is unusual among advanced economies – but Australia was not alone in this regard.

Comparing Australia’s emissions trend with the major advanced economies (the G7 countries with the EU bloc) between 2000 and 2014, Australia is the only one that had growing emissions over that time period. – Yann Robiou du Pont and Anita Talberg.

Review

The authors of this FactCheck are correct. Mark Butler’s statement is suitably vague, such that depending on the definition of “major economy” and the time frame that is examined, the claim is probably true. Plus, the caveat of “pretty much” gives the statement a bit of leeway. The lack of solid, comparable data from all developed countries as well as major developing countries for the most recent time period also makes the claim difficult to confirm with absolute certainty.

The fact that Australia’s emissions are increasing is worthy of mention in itself, especially in the light of the pledges made at the Paris CoP21 meeting. – Roger Dargaville


Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

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