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History shows Australia is no pissant when it comes to emissions

Ross Garnaut was unequivocal yesterday in responding to industry claims that Australia’s emission reductions would be irrelevant in an international context. “I do not accept that Australia is a pissant…

We must look to our past emissions to understand our true carbon footprint.

Ross Garnaut was unequivocal yesterday in responding to industry claims that Australia’s emission reductions would be irrelevant in an international context.

“I do not accept that Australia is a pissant country,” he told the National Press Club as he launched the final part of the updated Garnaut Review.

But whatever the government’s go-to guy might say on the topic of Australia’s responsibility, it remains a persistent idea peddled by shock jocks, industry spokespeople and “sceptics” alike.

They argue that Australian annual CO₂ emissions are such a tiny fraction of the world’s total (around 1.5%) that there is no need for us to take action.

So if we are only responsible for such a small proportion, why should we bother with a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme?

This argument may seem plausible at first glance, especially because it seems to let us off the hook so readily.

But even after limited analysis this argument turns out to be deeply flawed and misleading at many levels because it ignores the full context.

A case of history emitting

To provide this context, we must first remember that there are about 200 countries in the world. If they shared emissions equally, no single country would emit more than ½ of a percent of the total.

So without going any further, our 1.5% is already three times more than would be expected if we had an equal share in the world’s total.

This reinforces the fact that looking at a single number, whether it’s 1.5% or 8% or 4.39875% is often meaningless. Instead, we need to place numbers into context. And this begins with a comparison of any given country’s emissions against those of other countries.

And there is an additional context we must consider in the case of CO₂ emissions. We must recognize the importance of the sum total of emissions across the last two or three centuries.

Why? Because CO₂ accumulates in the atmosphere, and hence what matters to a country’s responsibility for climate change are its historical emissions in the same way that if five housemates run up a debt, each person’s responsibility extends to their entire expenditures, not just last week’s excessive bar tab.

Unfortunately, people’s cognitive apparatus is not well equipped to deal with quantities that accumulate, and so it is worth expanding on this point.

Crunching the numbers

Historical emissions data are provided by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). These data go back as far as 1750 (for some countries) and they are the best available record of global annual emissions over time. When emissions are summed across the available record, the top 25 all-time emitters are as follows:

You will note that Australia is 14th out of roughly 200 in terms of cumulative emissions.

This should clarify how misleading it is to talk about how “only 1.5% of emissions are ours.“ In fact, over history, we are responsible for a lot of CO₂ in the atmosphere.

This can be clarified further by plotting the historical emissions of all countries against the rank position of each country (in other words, we order the countries from most-emitting on the left to least-emitting on the right).

This is shown in the figure below:

The figure clarifies that Australia has more historical responsibility for CO₂ in the atmosphere than 228 other countries (where some administrative regions, such as Greenland or the Falkland Islands, are considered “countries” for these data). In other words, we are more responsible for climate change than about 94% of all countries in the world.

Populating the problem

There is one additional important point to be made: The data presented thus far are total cumulative emissions, not adjusted for population.

The figure above and the earlier table are not per capita but they are the sum total of emissions.

Despite that, we are ahead of Brazil, for example, which has roughly ten times the population of Australia.

Australia has 1/3 of a percent (or .0031) of the world’s population, yet we are number 14 on the list of total emitters and have more responsibility for global warming than about 94% of all other countries.

To provide full context, let’s examine what happens when we convert total historical emissions to per capita emissions.

How much of a responsibility does each one of us in Australia have for the carbon emitted during the last 100-200 years?

Like it or not, Australians have emitted 3,638,504,000 tons of carbon to date, and as you can see in the table below, each and every one of us carries a share of this historical burden that’s equivalent to roughly 172 tons.

No escaping our responsibility

We are within the top ten emitters if we account for the size of our relatively small population relative to that of some other countries—for example China, which is in position 61 on this list. In other words, the country that is the favourite bugaboo of those who want to forestall climate action in Australia, is way down the list when it comes to the historical responsibility of each of its citizens.

Australians, by contrast are among the top ten.

There is no shirking that responsibility.

Sooner or later we must cut emissions. And of course we will, because the laws of physics do not negotiate. The only question is when we will finally begin climate action.

More detail on the data used in this piece and details of the analysis (including some subtleties involving “new” countries such as Russia and the Czech Republic) can be found at Shaping Tomorrow’s World.

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. Bob Bingham


    Australians like a lot of countries talk about the carbon tax as a way of buying your way out. Pay the tax and keep burning or exporting. In fact there is no way out of this unless we stop burning and leave the coal in the ground. For a country that is very vulnerable to changes in climate and yet makes a comfortable living, mining and exporting coal there are some very difficult decisions to be made.

  2. Dana Nuccitelli

    Environmental Scientist

    Good points. Interesting to see the UK at #2 on the historical per capita emissions list, considering how much they've done in recent years to reduce emissions. I guess they burned a lot of coal in their history.

  3. Brad Maxwell

    Engineering Student

    Great article. Can I ask how do industry spokespeople and "sceptics” calculate the CO₂ emissions figure of 1.5% for Australia?

    1. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Brad Maxwell

      That's based on current emissions. But what matters is (a) the history and (b) our rank in the distribution. So 1.5% by itself has little meaning if 200 other countries are at .0005% or whatever. The context is what matters and in this case the proper context is history and rank in the distribution.

    2. James Szabadics


      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Given we cant change history what surely matters is

      a) The intended goal of Australias future action - to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions.

      b) The intended and unintended economic and environemental consequences of the proposed action and its timetable.

      If economic growth in China and India and population growth globally continues to drive CO2 emissions and toxic emissions expansion then regardless of our noble sacrafice its going to get worse globally due to expanding human consumption…

      Read more
  4. Adrian Tavis Whitehead

    Hi Stephan,

    Nice article. DO you have reference for the CDIAC article that produced the data