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  • Writer's pictureGregory Andrews

Debunking the excuse that “Australia only contributes to 1% of emissions"

A narrative against climate action by those moving on from overt denialism is that Australia's emissions are just a drop in the ocean compared to countries like China, the US, India and Russia. This argument is simplistic and flawed. It fails to consider Australia’s much greater offshored-emissions from fossil fuel exports. It ignores the collective impact of so-called small emitters like us. It misses the leadership and economic opportunities that we can seize in adopting a zero emissions future. And, it's basically blame-shifting and avoidance of our moral responsibilities. These are my four key points in debunking the "we only contribute one per cent" excuse. Of course, you might have more and I'd welcome those in the comments below.


Australia’s share of emissions is much higher than dodgy accounting mechanisms suggest


It’s true that according to agreed but dodgy global carbon accounting standards, Australia’s emissions are only a little over one per cent of total emissions. But this measurement system conveniently avoids accounting for the emissions we export. It only counts our domestic emissions. As the world’s largest coal exporter and third-largest gas exporter, we are responsible for much more. Shifting the focus to total emissions reveals a more accurate picture of Australia's share. We account for almost five per cent of global emissions when our exported emissions are included.


The collective impact of so-called 'negligible' emitters like Australia is significant


The climate doesn't care who emits what or how much. It cares about total global emissions and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The argument that only major players should take decisive action ignores this fact, as well as the collective impact that smaller emitters can have. The cumulative impact of nations with seemingly 'negligible' emissions is substantial. Australia’s emissions are higher than 40 countries that have larger populations than us. Our per capita emissions are the highest in the OECD and the seventh highest globally. We're behind only a small group of much smaller petro-states - like the UAE and Qatar.


We can grasp economic advantages from global leadership and innovation


Australia is one of the most prosperous countries on Earth. This wealth gives us the capacity and opportunity to secure economic benefits by driving innovation and leading zero-emissions technology development and utilisation. Abundant sun, wind and human capabilities, empower Australia to play a pivotal role in shaping renewable energy and zero-emissions technology markets globally. The alternative would be to stick with dying and outdated energy sources and miss the boat. It would be like choosing to keep using typewriters rather than adopting computers and iPads.


Australia has a responsibility to set an example


Finally, Australia is an important Asia-Pacific multicultural democracy. We are a wealthy country in no small part due to our exploitation of fossil fuels. We have a responsibility to set an example on ambitious climate action, regionally and the across the world. We’ve done so in the past on important issues like giving women the vote, making seat belts mandatory in cars, and contributing to ending Apartheid in South Africa. And we are doing so now on issues like reducing incidence of smoking and promoting gender equality. On climate change, Australia can showcase what’s achievable and inspire other fossil fuel intensive nations to embrace clean energy as soon as possible.


To conclude, the "we only contribute one percent" excuse is flawed, lazy and blame-shifting. It fails to acknowledge the roles, responsibilities and opportunities Australia has in the global climate crisis and the transition to a clean energy future. Regardless of our size, Australia has a lot at stake in ensuring a safe planet. To safeguard our future prosperity and security, we need to be a leader not a laggard.

The Australia Institute’s report High Carbon from a Land Down Under: Quantifying CO2 from Australia’s fossil fuel mining and exports is worth a read for getting a better understanding of the real extent of our emissions. This graph is from that report.


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