Carbon Footprints in Perspective

According to a Lowy poll before our recent “climate change election”, apparently 89% of Australians were in favour of action on climate change.  They got it wrong of course, but there is still much gnashing of teeth over the size of our carbon footprint, especially in regard to our emissions per capita.   According to the University of Melbourne’s Climate Energy College, “Australia’s per-capita emissions remain the highest among its key trading partners”.

So how does Australia rate in the world of carbon emissions?

In this post I use data from the Global Carbon Atlas for fossil fuel emissions for 2017 (the most recent data available), and population, land area, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data from the World Bank, also for 2017. GDP for each nation is calculated in current US dollars.

Figure 1 shows 2017 fossil fuel emissions for all 202 countries with available data, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Fig. 1:  Fossil fuel emissions 2017


In 2017 China was way in front with close to 10 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted, distantly followed by the USA, with India, Russia, and Japan well behind.  Australia was in 16th place, following Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey.  At the other end of the scale the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu emitted only 13,000 tonnes of CO2.

In absolute terms our 413 million Tonnes of CO2 emissions are mediocre.  In the 20 years from 1998 to 2017, Australia’s carbon footprint increased by 78.4 million tonnes.  China’s increased by 6,573 million tonnes.  We’re not in the race, and it is blindingly obvious that however much we reduce our emissions we will have almost zero impact on the global total.

That is the reason that global warming enthusiasts in academia and the media promote the idea of per capita emissions- because we look worse that way.

Fig. 2:  2017 emissions per capita


It is certainly true that we emit larger amounts of CO2 per person compared with our major trading partners.  Fossil fuel is dirt cheap in oil rich nations, but in poor African countries each person emits less than a quarter of a Tonne of CO2 from fossil fuels per year.  There, firewood is the fuel of necessity, with severe consequences for health and the environment.  It is interesting that New Caledonia emits more per head than Australia.

Why does Australia hold this position?  The amount of wealth created by fossil fuel use is a measure of productivity and efficiency.  Figure 3 shows how countries rate in efficiency- how much CO2 is emitted for each US dollar in GDP.

Fig. 3:  2017 emissions per US $ GDP


Less is better.  Poorer countries that burn a lot of fossil fuel, and larger nations that do the same- including Russia, India, China, South Korea, and Indonesia- have less efficient economies than western nations including Canada, Australia, and the USA.  Small countries, especially those with nuclear and renewable energy, rich island nations, and poor African nations using very little fossil fuel make up the best.  Australia has a productive economy with historically cheap fossil fuels- but the most important reason for our relatively high emissions per capita is our size.

Figure 4, a comparison of carbon intensity, is an alternative way of comparing emissions, and because it takes into account the natural advantages of other advanced economies, demonstrates our carbon efficiency much better than population or GDP comparisons.

Fig. 4: 2017 emissions per land area


Australia, in 144th position, is followed only by countries with much smaller economies, and none of them apart from Iceland and Greenland are European.  All of our major trading partners, and many others, have much higher carbon intensity than Australia.  All Pacific Island nations, except for Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands, have higher carbon intensity as well.

Why?  Our economy is diffused across a wide brown land.  Even our cities are relatively thinly populated by world standards.  Production centres and markets are vast distances apart.  Russia, China, Canada, the USA, and Brazil are all larger in area than Australia.  Even so, our emissions are much less: Australia- 53.7 Tonnes per square kilometre; Brazil- 61.5; Canada- 63; Russia- 103.4; USA- 576; China- 1,048 Tonnes per square kilometre.

Don’t preach to us- Australia is a carbon sink by comparison with most other countries.


As an appendix, here are three plots showing Australia’s relative position in the world.

Fig. 5:  2017 population


Fig. 6:  2017 GDP


Fig. 7:  Land area


Australia is sixth in land area, 13th in GDP, and 53rd in population.  We are a large, under-populated, productive nation.  Naturally we have fossil fuel emissions to match.

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4 Responses to “Carbon Footprints in Perspective”

  1. John in Oz Says:

    Per capita sells the fear. the other metrics do not

    Thanks for all of your work

  2. Bill in Oz Says:

    Ken one thing you skipped over. Poorer countries tend to burn wood and even dried dung for cooking and heating. And none of these fuels that release CO2 appear in the capita carbon footprint.

    Are there any figures which include these fuels ?

    If they exist, they would be far far more accurate.

    • kenskingdom Says:

      That is a very big problem. It’s skipped over by global warmists and carbon accounting because wood and dung are regarded as biofuel, not fossil fuels, therefore ‘good’ (even if not good for health or the environment).

  3. Bill in Oz Says:

    But they add CO2 to the atmosphere just like fossil fuels Ken.

    And in a world where developing nations are increasing their populations, more wood & dung is burned each year.

    So this is spurious ‘logic’.

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