Australia’s big China climate change myth busted
For years Australia has used this reason as an excuse for inaction when it comes to climate change – but it doesn’t stack up
If you have a conversation with your mates about climate change, or you post something about on social media, there’s one common retort you’re likely to hear from those who think no action is the best course of action.
And it drives John Cook mad.
Dr Cook is a researcher at Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub specialising in climate misinformation, and he has heard just about every excuse out there for why Australia should not tackle the changing climate.
“You have to fight sticky myths with even stickier facts,” he told news.com.au.
That chief myth, certainly the chief excuse, is there’s no point in Australia doing anything about climate change because it produces only 1 per cent of the world’s emissions.
And it has a bedfellow in another excuse: what’s the point in doing anything anyway when China causes so much more pollution than Australia?
Time Is Now is part of news.com.au’s partnership with the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, looking at the impacts of climate change across Australia by 2050
The latter point was raised by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in August in response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which confirmed Australia had warmed by 1.4C.
Mr Morrison said China’s emissions “accounted for more than the entire OECD combined”.
“We need a solution that addresses the real commercial challenges of developing countries to solve this problem,” the PM said who could at least be inching towards a net zero emissions by 2050 goal.
Monash’s Dr Cook told news.com.au Mr Morrison’s comments were “not constructive framing” and he was “being part of the problem, not the solution”.
“It’s certainly frustrating because I’m seeing the same arguments that I’ve been encountering since I started working in this area a decade and a half ago.
“The only way they are being renewable is in the way that they can reuse the same arguments,” he said.
“And the problem is, they are superficially persuasive. Because arguing Australia only emits 1 per cent of emissions, is a very simple talking point. And the answer to that is complicated.”
Many countries also only produce 1 per cent
Data from the European Union’s EDGAR emissions database states that China, the US, India, Russia and Japan are the world’s biggest polluters.
China alone accounts for 30 per cent of emissions and the US is second on 14 per cent.
In 2019, Australia belched out 433 million tonnes of C02. That’s indeed around 1 per cent which puts us in 15th on the dirtiest nation’s leaderboard.
So why bother cutting our emissions when other countries produce so much more?
“The problem is a lot of countries can make that 1 per cent argument,” Dr Cook said.
Indeed eight of the nations with higher emissions than Australia produce less than 2 per cent of global emissions.
“If every country in that position made that argument we would never get any further in reducing our emissions and climate change would spiral.
“It’s like saying, if I litter it’s only a little bit of litter. But if everyone argues that we’d be living in a refuse heap.”
In reality, we produce more than 1 per cent
Australia’s scorecard gets far worse if you factor in what’s called “scope 3 emissions”. This includes emissions created by Australia but exported.
For instance, Australian coal, liquefied natural gas and other fuels which are sent overseas for power and manufacturing.
If you were to add these emissions to Australia’s total, while also subtracting imported fossil fuels, we would account for around 3.3 per cent of global emissions, according to RMIT/ABC Fact Check.
That would take us from 15th in the table of emitters to fifth.
The China excuse
However, even if you stick to the 1 per cent figure, there’s another measurement on which Australia fares poorly: per capita emissions.
By that metric Australia produces 17 tonnes of carbon per person and shoots up to ninth place in the per capita table which is topped by oil producing Gulf states.
Crucially, many of the big overall emitters sink down this table because they can divide their emissions between far more people than Australia. For instance, in per capita emissions Australia pips the US. While China, which produces 7.10 tonnes per person is, by this measure, only the 30th dirtiest country.
You can see Australia’s ranking both overall and per capita in the interactive graphic above. But a screenshot (below) shows that Australia’s per capita emissions (light blue) are now pipping the US’s emissions (in purple). China’s per capita emissions (red) don’t even come close.
“In Australia we pride ourselves on punching above our weight. But in this case we’re punching above our weight on something not good,” Dr Cook said.
“And it’s pretty rich for Australia to point to another country like China when per person we emit a lot more than in China does.
“All these arguments commit the fallacy of impossible expectations,” he said.
“That’s that this one action or policy, or country, won’t solve everything and so therefore there’s no point doing it.
“But that’s like being in the path of a truck that’s coming down the road towards you and arguing that the first step isn’t going to get me out of the way so I might as well not move at all.”
‘We’re lagging at the back of the pack’
Dr Cook said in the end all nations needed to do their bit.
“If every country hung back and said ‘let’s wait until this other country does something before we act’ that undermines global co-operation,” he said.
“To solve climate change we need global co-operation.”
Australia’s emissions have gone down – a touch. That’s chiefly through using less coal. However, those falls appear to have plateaued.
The US may be a big emitter but it has a target of net zero emissions by 2050; China says it will do the same by 2060. Australia does not have a net zero goal, only a general ambition.
Speaking after the release of the IPCC report Mr Morrison said “blank cheque commitments you always end up paying for, and you always end up paying in higher taxes”.
But Dr Cook said there was another reason for Australia to move past the excuse that doing nothing – or not a lot – was acceptable and to instead pull up its climate socks.
“There are a lot of countries that have a lower standard of living than us or a smaller economy,” he said.
“We’re a rich country, we have more capacity to reduce our emissions, and we have the opportunity to take a leadership role in the world.
“And instead, just like how Australia lagged behind the pack when it comes to Covid vaccinations, we’re also lagging at the back of the pack on climate actions too.”