16 September 2011

Rudd government commitments on greenhouse emissions are just gestures

Sadly, the Government’s announcements are just goodwill gestures, which cannot be achieved if Australia’s population grows as projected. This matters for the globe, because by 2005, per capita emission of greenhouse gases in Australia  were 28.9 tonnes, nearly three times the EU rate of 10.7 tonnes and many times greater than in India and China. Since most of our migrants come from these places their movement here adds significantly to the global greenhouse gas burden.

The Rudd Government’s posturing on this matter reflects the Canadian experience. After signing the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, Canada has boasted about its clean/green status while performing abysmally on emission reductions. One of the reasons is that, like Australia, it is running a very high migration program.  

The basis for our argument is an analysis of Treasury modelling published in Australia’s Low Pollution Future. This was the precursor to the White Paper on emissions policy and the Emissions Trading legislation introduced in the Parliament last year. Had the ETS legislation passed, the government could have put a cap on emissions to achieve the -5 per cent target. This is 523 million tonnes, or five per cent below actual emission levels in 2000 of 553 million tonnes. 

Yet the Treasury modelling indicates that, with business-as-usual (that is, no new abatement measures), emissions will reach 774 million tonnes by 2020, 40 per cent above the 2000 level. This scenario incorporates a projected drop of 21 per cent in greenhouse emissions per unit of GDP, mainly due to a greater share of services in the economy. However, this drop is offset by  Treasury’s assumption that per capita real income will be 40 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2000 and that our population will grow  from 19.2 million in 2000 to 25.2 million in 2020 (slightly below the Intergenerational Report projection). 

The combination of these per capita economic growth and population expansion projections means that real GDP will be $1.57 trillion in 2020, or nearly double the $.885 trillion in 2000. A near doubling of real GDP means a massive increase in the production and consumption of goods and services and thus (in Australia’s case) of greenhouse emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. Population is the great amplifier here. Everyone, including the extra six million by 2020, will be on average enjoying the projected higher material standard of living by 2020. 

Our disaggregation of the Treasury model showed that the increase in emissions due to per capita economic growth was almost offset by Treasury’s assumption that emissions per unit of GDP would fall by 21 per cent. Thus most (83 per cent) of the growth in emissions in the business as usual case was attributable to the extra six million people. 

If the required restrictive cap was imposed, it would mean a rapid escalation in the price of carbon permits as demand pressed against the cap boundaries. But, there is little chance such a cap would be enforced because it would threaten the government’s economic and population growth priorities. 

The Government is aware of the role of population in increasing greenhouse emissions. This is the reason why it adopted the -5 per cent target rather than the -20 per cent target chosen by the EU. Its White paper states that:

… our growing population and relatively emissions-intensive economy, mean that we will have higher adjustments costs than many other developed countries to reach ostensibly similar goals.

Yet, it has chosen to press ahead with record-high levels of net overseas immigration. This objective is a higher priority than that of achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The simple arithmetic says it all. With a population of 25.2 by 2020, the per capita greenhouse emission level under the -5 per cent target would have to fall from the current 28.9 tonnes to 20.7 tonnes. All this must occur over the next ten years when the government promises to have its foot on the aggregate economic growth accelerator. 

The Rudd Government’s pledge to reduce Australia’s emissions by 60 per cent on year 2000 levels by 2050 is equally fanciful. If Australia reaches 35.9 million, per capita emissions will have to fall to 6.1 tonnes. 


Bob Birrell and Ernest Healy are with the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University. Their article ‘ Population growth and Australia’s 2020 greenhouse gas emission commitments’ is in the December 2009 issue of People and Place. #

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