Who’s your carbon daddy?

20 04 2011

The other day, Bill Laurance asked Barry Brook and me to comment on an opinion editorial he was doing up, so I feel fully justified in reproducing it here (and he asked me to ;-). It has just been published online in Australian Geographic.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but here it is: China is now the biggest global emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief greenhouse gas – and Australia has helped it attain that dubious honour.

China now spews out about 6.5 billion tons of CO2 annually, whereas the USA emits 5.8 billion tons a year (based on data for 2008 compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy). Collectively, these two countries account for over 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Number three on the list is Russia, with 1.7 billion tons per year, followed closely by India.

Of course, China’s huge leap in emissions is largely down to its dramatic industrial and economic growth, in concert with the fact that it is the world’s most populous nation, with over 1.3 billion people. To help fuel its growth, China is now building nearly one new coal-fired power-generating plant per week.

Export commodity

That’s bad news for the environment, because coal is the most carbon-dense of all fossil fuels, producing significantly more carbon dioxide than electricity generated from oil or gas. Emissions from renewable sources, such as hydroelectricity, nuclear, solar and wind are roughly a hundred times lower again.

And where does China get its coal? Much of it comes from Australia. Black coal is Australia’s biggest export commodity, accounting for 23 per cent of the country’s total exports. Over a 12-month period from 2008-2009, 25 million tonnes of Australian coal was shipped to China, representing almost a tenth of Australia’s coal exports. This will grow further as China struggles to meet its rapidly escalating energy demands.

And don’t be fooled for one second about phrases like ‘clean coal’. At present, there’s no such thing. Many modern coal-fired generating plants have scrubbers (technically called ‘electrostatic precipitators’) to help remove soot and sulphur dioxide in their emissions. But these scrubbers don’t do a thing to reduce CO2 emissions.

Trapping and storing CO2 is technically feasible but enormously expensive, both in terms of dollars and energy consumption. So far, not a single commercial coal-fired generating plant in the entire world is removing CO2 from its emissions. Another way to look at CO2 emissions – perhaps the fairest way – is on a per-capita basis. Again, things are surprisingly bad for Australia: it ranks worst in the world. On average, each Aussie produces 20.8 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Little excuse

That beats out the yearly per-capita emissions of other top polluters, including the USA (19.2 tonnes), Canada (17.3 tonnes) and Saudi Arabia (16.6 tonnes). And unlike the USA and Canada, Australia doesn’t have to content with frigid winters, which require large quantities of energy for heating (much of Saudi Arabia’s emissions come from large-scale petroleum production).

What does all this mean? For starters, it highlights the fact that Australia has much scope to increase its energy efficiency and reduce its CO2 emissions. A market-based carbon tax is probably the most effective way to achieve this.

This would put the onus on heavy industries such as steel manufacturing and coal-fired electricity generators (which supply 80 per cent of Australia’s energy) to cut their emissions, while promoting cleaner energy sources, industries and eco-friendly technologies.

In addition, it suggests Aussies shouldn’t be too holier-than-thou when criticising countries like the USA. There’s no doubt that Americans need to clean up their act – with just 2 per cent of the global population they’re gobbling up a quarter of all petroleum supplies. But as the world’s worst per-capita CO2 polluter and as one of the leading global exporters of dirty coal, Australia should be sitting in the sin bin right beside them.

WF Laurance, James Cook University



3 responses

7 06 2011

CJAB……I read all the time but I also take in other scientific perspectives outside of ecology or conservation……Being pro ecologist is one thing but completely dismissing evidence from other fields of science is just plain ignorance.

You obviously have not read Dr David Evans’ address in Perth, 23 March 2011.

Here are his qualifications……..

Dr David Evans consulted full-time for the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Department of Climate Change) from 1999 to 2005, & part-time 2008 to 2010, modelling Australia’s carbon in plants, debris, mulch, soils, & forestry & agricultural products. Evans is a mathematician & engineer, with 6 university degrees including a PhD from Stanford University in electrical engineering. The area of human endeavour with the most experience & sophistication in dealing with feedbacks & analysing complex systems is electrical engineering, & the most crucial & disputed aspects of understanding the climate system are the feedbacks. The evidence supporting the idea that CO2 emissions were the main cause of global warming reversed itself from 1998 to 2006, causing Evans to move from being a warmist to a sceptic.

Here is a link to his address in Perth….


A friend of mine is a geologist…..he knows a lot more about the variations of carbon on this planet through time than anyone would care to remember. Instead of creating a site reflective of a one sided echo chamber of how terrible carbon pollution is……how about taking a step back and looking at the views of other scientists outside of ecology on carbon?

Climate change is real…….global warming/cooling goes through natural cycles. Australia’s carbon output is at about 0.3% of the human produced total and getting lower in relation to the rest of the worlds output despite no carbon tax. Are you trying to tell readers of your website that we in Australia have enough control over carbon on this planet to warrant being taxed? As we speak the big players are doing deals with the government which will ultimately mean exemptions for the producers being passed on to every layman in this country.

The proposed carbon tax here in Australia will generate more revenue from 22 million poeple in 8 months than the European carbon tax has on their massive population for the last 6 years! Hardly comparible…….hardly economically responsible given the sad financial state of Europe since the shift towards sustainablility at all costs being promoted by the UN.

Changes in attitude and direction are the key, taxes are not. A more hollistic approach to carbon pollution and the true effects is required here on this site.


10 05 2011
Wade M

Did you know that the volcano that errupted in Iceland a while back produced 80% of the worlds carbon for that year!

Although human produced carbon needs to be monitored and controlled trying to produce a carbon free country is impossible……carbon is not a pollutant…..it is found naturally in the atmosphere. Geologists know that carbon levels have varied considerably on this planet for millions of years through the study of rocks. Well before the industrial revolution. Sure control carbon output….but why tax the public of Australia when in reality the control of carbon on earth is well and truly out of our hands!


13 05 2011

What an absolute load of twaddle. If you buy that crap, you obviously haven’t done any research. Please. Want to know about CO2? Learn to read. http://BraveNewClimate.com


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