Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald featured an opinion piece by Rodney Tiffen on Australia’s sluggish response to climate change. Deliberately provocative, the discussion was framed from the outset in the language of competition:
An international competition in self-righteousness would be closely fought. But Australia must be a strong contender.
Tiffen went on to draw on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), but got his statistics slightly wrong in the process:
If we restrict the analysis to the most populous 130 countries, those with a population of 3.5 million or more, Australia is the world leader. Only a handful of small countries, especially oil producers such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, have higher per person emissions.
Australians may be disappointed to learn that we do not, in fact, take home the trophy in this competition. Both the United Arab Emirates and the United States have populations over 3.5 million and have higher per capita emissions than Australia at last count (2007). Nevertheless, coming in third place in this competition, Australia certainly punches above its weight, with per capita emissions running at 4.3 times the world average. Furthermore, as the chart below shows, we have been steadily catching up to the United States over the last 40 years. In fact, to give Tiffen the benefit of the doubt, the most recent IEA data is for 2007, so we may well be ahead of the USA by now.
CO2 emissions 1971-2007 (Source: IEA)
The reason Tiffen looks at per capita emissions is to ward off one common argument for inaction on climate change, namely that China and the United States are the only countries that can make a difference. There is no doubt that these two countries dominate the overall production of emissions. Throwing Canada and Mexico in with the United States brings North American emissions to almost one quarter of the world’s total. Add China and almost half the world’s emissions are accounted for.
Total CO2 emissions for 2007 (Source: IEA)
Nevertheless, if the aim is to attempt reductions in world emissions, Tiffen’s focus on per capita emissions is entirely appropriate. No-one would be convinced if the United States viewed its emissions along State lines, thereby arguing that their emissions were not so big by global standards after all (although, this defence would probably not be much use to California). While countries may be actors on the world stage through their political proxies at climate conferences, emissions are ultimately the product of people (both at home and at work) and not countries. Ranking countries by per capita emissions is thus useful as it gives some indication of where emission reductions may be more readily achieved. The chart below shows the top 25 (big and small) countries in terms of per capita emissions.
Top 25 per capita emitters for 2007 (Source: IEA)
Qatar ranks so high on this scale that it compresses the figures for all of the emitters below it, so here is the chart again with a somewhat truncated scale.
Top 25 per capita emitters for 2007 (Source: IEA)
There are certainly some small countries with high rates of carbon emissions per capita, but looking at a larger scale reveals that developed countries are the worst in per capita terms. It is worth noting, though, that Europe is doing better than the rest of the OECD and is also ahead of former members of the Soviet Union.
Per capita emissions by region for 2007 (Source: IEA)
Another useful approach is to consider emissions per dollar of economic output. This serves to highlight “inefficient” emitters, not to shame them but to identify where spending money on the problem is most likely to deliver significant results. It should come as no surprise that a league table of the highest emitters per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) is a catalogue of troubled and/or small nations. Note that these figures are calculated based on conversion to US dollars using market exchange rates. Using purchasing power parity instead does reorder the list somewhat, but the names are largely the same.
Top 25 emitters by emissions/GDP for 2007 (Source: IEA)
This perspective suggests that when developed countries consider programs to assist developing countries to reduce their emissions, they could reasonably focus on significant but inefficient emitters. The chart below provides a possible target list, showing the 10 worst-performing countries in terms of emissions per dollar of economic output after restricting to countries with emissions of at least 150 million tons of C02 per annum.
Top 10 large emitters by emissions/GDP for 2007 (Source: IEA)
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