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Amidst the rhetoric, what are the real numbers on Australia’s environmental performance?
As the climate catastrophe morphs from looming threat to ever-present reality, our relationship with it is changing. Australians in particular are watching its effects play out in record-breaking natural disasters, from fires to floods.
It’s clear by now that our actions have consequences. Those consequences are being felt around the globe, often in those regions that are most vulnerable to extremes of weather and climate and, ironically, the least responsible, and the least able to afford the consequences, of the climate catastrophe.
Just two weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Committee found the Australian Government had violated the rights of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change, and should compensate them.
The language of climate has shifted from unity to accountability: instead of ‘we’re all in this together’ it’s ‘who’s to blame?’. The answer, almost invariably, is the so-called ‘developed’ economies.
So, how is Australia – as a nation and a public – actually performing across a range of different environmental and climate metrics? What can people, at the individual and collective level, do to help? And, ultimately, whose responsibility is it anyway?
Australia’s climate action is considered insufficient by most measures. According to Climate Action Tracker, Labor’s new emissions reduction target of 43% by 2030 is almost sufficient to limit warming to under 2C, but not quite.
But the tracker rates Australia’s actual climate policy as insufficient, consistent with under 3C of warming, well above a safe threshold to limit the worst impacts of climate change.
Predictably, fossil fuel exports are not Australia’s strongest performance indicator. According to Geoscience Australia, the energy sector accounts for 20% of Australia’s total export value.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, accounting for half of all its energy exports.
Australia’s domestic emissions have often been downplayed as minimal, at 1.2% of global emissions. Australia has just 0.3% of the world’s population. Accounts of Australia’s emissions tend not to factor in the country’s massive fossil fuel exports.
According to a 2019 report by the Australia Institute, the CO2 potential of Australia’s fossil fuel exports is more than twice as much as the greenhouse gas emissions produced domestically.
Road traffic fuel consumption
According to the ABS’ most recent survey of motor vehicle use (released June 2020), Australians drive more than an estimated 19.7 million vehicles.
With a population of over 25 million people as at 31 March 2022, that means we’re averaging around 0.7 cars per person. By contrast, the UK had a motorisation rate of 491 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, or 0.5 cars per person in 2019, while China had a motorisation rate of just 173 motor vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, or 0.17 per person, in 2018.
Perhaps the more important statistic, though, is how much fuel we’re guzzling when driving those cars. The ABS report found Australian motor vehicles consumed 33,000 megalitres of fuel, or 33 billion litres, in 2019-20.
By contrast, UK drivers consumed 46 billion litres of fuel in 2019. That means that Australia consumed 71% of the volume of fuel that the UK consumed, despite having only 37% of the population.
According to Statista, Australia had the fourth highest road transport emissions per capita in the world in 2018, behind the US, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
Why might Australia produce such a higher volume of road traffic-based fuel consumption per person?
Firstly, the average emissions intensity for a new passenger vehicle sold in Australia is 45% higher than in Europe. That’s because Australian drivers are more likely to favour heavier vehicles with more powerful engines – which might well be attributable to the vast distances Aussies travel, and the prevalence of agriculture. Some people will be surprised to discover however that drivers in Germany, Austria and Spain on average travel even greater distances.
The Australian government has also historically taken limited action to incentivise low-emissions vehicles, and Australia’s powerful car lobby has worked behind the scenes to limit fuel efficiency standards.
Household electricity use
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, average household electricity use in the financial year ending 2020 was 21 gigajoules, or 5,833 kilowatt hours (kWh).
By contrast, estimates suggest the average UK household consumes around 3,000 to 4,000 kWh annually, while the average Canadian household consumes 11,000 kWh, and the average US household consumes more than 12,000 kWh.
That means Australia’s household energy use is sitting reasonably comfortably compared to other major Western economies, though it’s much higher than the global average of 3,370kWh.
Consumption also varies by state: Tasmania uses the most power, averaging 8,619kWh, while Victorians have the lowest consumption at 4,615kWh.
However, Tasmania has huge renewable energy resources, becoming the first state to run on 100% renewable energy in June last year. That’s thanks in part to the state’s natural environment, a boon for hydro-electric and wind power generation.
Waste & recycling
China’s 2018 waste import ‘ban’ (the so-called “National Sword” policy) cast Australia’s waste industry into crisis mode, because the government had previously exported 3.5% of its total recycling to China. That may not seem a big number, but two particular materials were highly reliant on exports: 29% of all paper and 36% of all plastics collected were exported to China before the measure was introduced.
According to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), Australia produces 74 million tonnes of waste per year, and recycles 60%. Just over 40% of our household waste, however, goes into recycling.
Australia’s recycling record varies by material type: 90% of Australia’s metal waste is successfully reused, whereas only 12% of Australia’s plastics are recycled successfully.
So, how do we compare with the rest of the world?
The UK produces 222 million tonnes of waste per year, and has a household recycling rate of 44%. That means Australia produces around 33% of the volume of waste that the UK produces with around 37% of the population: even-steven.
According to a report by independent sustainability consultancy Eunomia, when it comes to municipal waste alone – meaning waste disposed of by the public from households, office buildings and small businesses – Germany ranked first in the world in 2017, with a 66% recycling rate. In that year, Australia ranked 21st in the world, with a 41% recycling rate.
According to Liam Taylor, head of communications at PlanetArk – an environmental foundation based in Australia – only a small fraction of the waste placed into Australia’s recycling bins actually goes to landfill, despite some of the disturbingly low recycling rates of major materials like plastic.
Taylor says that PlanetArk’s data suggests 84 to 96% of kerbside recycling is actually recycled, with the remaining 4 to 16% destined for landfill – largely, he says, due to consumer behaviours like placing the wrong item in the recycling bin.
“The notion that most recycling ends up in landfill is an unfortunate myth that discourages people from improving their own recycling behaviours,” he says.
That data seems to hold true when you look at local council recycling figures. According to the Cairns City Council, for example, around 15% of their residential recycling bins were contaminated. Perhaps alarmingly, the Council told Cosmos that audit data suggests that figure is on the rise due to ‘wish-cycling’, the optimistic placement of non-recyclables in recycling bins.
While it might seem a distant problem during the east coast’s third La Niña year in a row, with dams almost full to overflowing and ground sodden from three years of intense rainfall, Australia is still the world’s driest inhabited continent, beleaguered by frequent, years-long bursts of drought.
According to one recent study, Australia ranked among the worst 10 countries in the world for water usage in 2017 – consuming an average of 5,255 litres of water per person per day.
According to the ABS’ most recent water usage report, Australia’s total water use sits at 77,000 gigalitres a year. A gigalitre (GL) is a billion litres. The figure includes water used in hydroelectricity which was later returned to the system. Excluding that water, the ABS says Australia consumes around 11,000 GLs per year.
According to this comparative dataset, using slightly older data sourced from the UN, Australia is generally faring much better than India and China, the two largest users of water, at 761 billion cubic litres (or 761,000 GLs) and 598 billion cubic litres (598,000 GLs) respectively, but is using more water than the UK or Germany.
Stuart Khan, a water expert at UNSW Sydney, says comparing water use between countries is difficult, not only because they use different units in their reporting but because the types of water use included in national reporting can vary considerably from state to state.
DCCEEW figures suggest irrigated agriculture uses up about 60% of Australia’s available water. By contrast, agriculture makes up just 1% of the UK’s water use.
“If you include all uses of water on a per capita basis, then you would say that water use is very high in Australia,” says Khan. But he says that actual household water use in Australia is reasonable for the country’s climate – the clincher is agriculture, a major cornerstone of Australia’s economy (and the only hope we have for food security in a destabilising world).
Khan says making agriculture more water efficient is a major policy focus at the moment, and points to the Murray-Darling crisis as an example of what’s at stake if we get it wrong. But there’s room for some optimism: one 2013 study by CSIRO found water use productivity over the preceding decade by cotton farmers, a major Australian crop, had improved by 40%. The Government is currently investing in a plethora of water use efficiency research and improvement programmes.
Data suggests that food systems account for nearly a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, meat products make up some 60% of those emissions, because of a cocktail of factors including land clearing, methane emissions and the fact that a majority of the world’s croplands actually go into feeding livestock, rather than people.
So how does Australia rank on meat consumption?
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australians are the second biggest consumers of meat, per capita, in the world. In 2015, we actually topped that list. According to Sustainable Australian Beef, the raising of livestock for meat consumption accounts for 10% of Australia’s emissions.
One reason is prosperity: data shows that higher wealth is associated with more meat-eating. Modern Australia is also proud of its agriculture and has a tradition of meat consumption baked into its culture. Meat production and processing employs over 53,000 people, so it’s a core part of many Australians’ working lives, too.
Construction is big business in Australia, and the sector is underpinned by powerful unionisation. It’s also a massive contributor to Australian emissions, making up almost a quarter of Australia’s carbon footprint in 2013, though only around 2% of direct emissions.
That’s because a carbon footprint looks at the emissions behind every stage of the process: the production and transport of the materials used, the process of construction, and the lifetime of the building.
That’s still lower than the global average, however, with construction making up 38% of total global emissions.
Nonetheless, if Australia is to reach its target of net zero by 2050, almost the entire industry will have to decarbonise. That’s difficult, because a lot of the key materials used in buildings are made using fossil fuels, and are notoriously tricky to decarbonise – like cement, steel, glass and insulation materials.
Whose job is it anyway?
Across any metric, Australia’s environmental performance is mixed at best. But who bears responsibility for these issues? And whose job is it to fix them?
According to Dr Jeff Sparrow, author of the 2021 book Crimes Against Nature, the narrative of personal accountability for climate change has a big role to play in the ongoing climate crisis, and the slow pace of change.
“For a while, most of the big polluters put at least some effort into running a kind of overt denialist line,” Sparrow says. “That’s no longer viable, because it’s clear the effects of climate change are already with us.
“So, increasingly, they’re bringing to the fore a strategy which is simply saying all right, climate change is happening, but you’re responsible for it as the consumer.”
In fact, according to Sparrow, many of the narratives we tell ourselves about our personal role in climate change come direct from the mouths of corporate PR machines.
One example he points to in the book is the concept of a ‘carbon footprint’, now a universally applied measure of a person, company or country’s impact on the climate.
In fact, it was Big Oil that originally hired PR companies to popularise the term ‘carbon footprint’, as a way to shoehorn the consumer into obsessing over their own personal environmental impact.
But why might fossil fuel companies benefit from the concept of a carbon footprint?
The first reason, according to Sparrow, is that by drawing an equivalence between the consumer and the corporation, the consumer is less able to point the environmental finger.
Secondly, however, “not only does it encourage people to point the finger at themselves, it actually encourages them to concentrate on actions that can make no difference at all,” he says.
“The way carbon footprints are actually calculated is usually by dividing the total outputs from a country by the number of people who are in it,” he says. “And because fossil fuel consumption is baked into the economy, it’s very difficult for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint in a meaningful way.”
Sparrow cites a 2008 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which found that even people living homeless had more than twice the carbon footprint than the global average. In other words, no matter how sparsely you live, the economic system in which you live will continue churning on.
“If you live in the United States you can become homeless, you can become a Buddhist monk, and your carbon footprint does not decrease appreciably,” he says. “Not only does this way of framing the question distract attention from the role of fossil fuel companies, it gets people focused on doing something they can’t possibly achieve.”
The net result, alleges Sparrow, is emotional withdrawal: “It’s totally politically demoralising. If there’s nothing I can do to reduce my carbon footprint, then I don’t want to hear about climate change anymore.”
What the personal responsibility narrative does, says Sparrow, is distract from the ultimate truth: that a mere handful of companies are responsible for the bulk of climate change.
“The public messaging from governments and big environmental organisations has been things like, ‘you should recycle’, ‘you should ride your bicycle’, or ‘you should make sure you turn your lights off’,” he says.
“While these things may be good, ethical practices, the problem we confront is systemic; the planetary destruction that is taking place is baked into the logic of the economic system.
“And so, that is the core of the problem,” Sparrow says. “And until we address that, then worrying about whether we ride a bicycle or not is neither here nor there.”