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Changing climates

Visualising Australia’s carbon emissions

Being able to visualise the impacts, the process and causes of climate change is not easy. Taking on board the abstract scale of the changes is challenging. Sometimes we need to refer to images from our past, such as borrowing a nuclear metaphor to imagine global warming progressing at four Hiroshima bombs per second.

We can also visualise the meaning of a 2 degrees Celsius hotter earth by showing how strange the planet looked at 2 degrees Celsius cooler. Harder to explain is the 10 day masking effect of aerosols, which are shielding us from the fact that we have already committed ourselves to a world much warmer than we are experiencing currently.

But of all the forces at play in the chemistry of global warming, the most important is the uniquely human contribution to these equations: CO2. Australia has a clear carbon budget which, according to the Climate Change Authority, we are going to exceed unless we step up our emissions reductions targets.

Last year, Tony Abbott described CO2 as “an invisible substance”. Or, more precisely, that emissions trading amounts to “a market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one”.

Of course, in the case of C02, an emissions trading scheme does deliver public health as a public good in a general sense, and it is being delivered to our children and grandchildren. But while Abbott might be wrong about the political economy of carbon, he is completely right about the invisibility of C02, and has gone straight to the psychological barrier we face in reducing emissions.

During the record-breaking NSW bushfires in October last year, Sydney was surrounded by smoke. When the smoke fell over populated areas, the view of the city became apocalyptic. Images were appearing on Twitter for days showing the darkened skies bearing down on a city helpless to clean up the bio-carbon pollution.

Smoke over Sydney during the October 2013 bushfires. Chad Ajamian

If we could see CO2 in the same way as we could see bushfire smoke, there would be an urgency for all politicians to address climate change. Reducing emissions would become a supervening imperative. Given that Chinese citizens living in polluted cities can pressure a one-party system to do something about choking smog, imagine what the voters in a multi-party liberal democracies could do, were carbon made visible.

With the help of Carbon Visuals, a start-up company in the UK that models carbon volumes for any scenario, the output of entire nations, corporations, organisations, households and even individuals, it is possible for emissions to be visualised like never before.

In the year to September 2013, Australia added 542.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

So that we can see how much CO2 Australia is emitting, Carbon Visuals have been able to place the carbon volume right next to the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Our prime minister can imagine daily emissions just by pulling the curtain aside at Kirribilli House.

The image below shows the actual volume of carbon dioxide emitted daily, based on standard pressure at 15 degrees Celsius.

Carbon Visuals

On a per capita basis, Australia’s domestic emissions are among the highest in the world. In 2010, Australia’s daily per capita emissions stood at 73kgs, four times the world average and three times that of the EU.

Carbon Visuals

The really bad news about both these figures, high enough as they are, is that if we add the emissions from coal exports, Australia’s contribution to global warming looks a whole lot worse.

Australia exported 301 million tonnes of coal in the year ending July 1, 2012. When this coal is burnt, it will produce 719.4 millions tonnes of C02, which is more than the domestic emissions alone.

The huge mines planned for the Galilee Basin are estimated to add 705 millions tonnes of C02 each year, bringing the emissions embedded in Australia’s coal exports to almost four times its current domestic emissions. Bill McKibben draws on Climate Insitute data here in Australia to suggest that current coal export plans, if left unchecked, will produce 30% of the carbon needed to push global warming beyond two degrees.

When the emissions from coal are factored in, the view from Kirribilli is looking very bleak indeed.

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