Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The false argument of 'per capita emissions'

While watching the ABC's excellent Insiders last Sunday morning the discussion turned to emissions trading, no surprise there, which included a tête-à-tête between Andrew Bolt and Malcom Farr, supported by Karen Middleton, on the relevance of per capita emissions.

I've been meaning to address the false issue of per capita emissions, aka carbon footprint, for a little while and the show was a reminder to do so.

Politically motivated

The main point to make about 'per capita emissions' is that it is a politically motivated term brought to prominence by activist groups in order to corral the discussion about emissions within a framework that only includes the developed world.

Thus, Australia is seen as an 'international pariah' by the Climate Faithful because we have high per capita emissions.

The fact that China and India are much greater emitters of CO2 than we are is deliberately ignored by the left, which relies on the argument that those nations should be excused from reducing their emissions, as they weren't the ones who created the problem in the first place and they need time to advance their economies.

As I pointed out recently, the only reason that these countries need to advance is that they had fifty or so years of socialist handbrake on their economies and have only relatively recently introduced the market reforms that have propelled them into their current high growth phases, which has seen around two hundred million people pulled out of near-poverty and into an emerging middle class.

The other point is that both China and India (and to a lesser extent other emerging economies such as Brazil) are now in a position to take advantage of a lifestyle that includes technologies and products that they had no role in creating.

Thus, it can be philosophically argued that these countries 'owe' the West a catch up amount to cover the development cost of these technologies.

Why per capita anwyay?

Here's a question that nobody seems to ask.

Why not calculate carbon footprint as being per square kilometre?

Isn't that a more accurate way to work out the impact of a nation which, after all, is the whole point of the exercise?

I guess that the United States' 615 tonnes CO2/square kilometre being so much less than Germany's 2410 or the UK's 2400 wouldn't be politically palatable…

Using that calculation Australia falls to the bottom of the ranking with just 42 tonnes CO2/square kilometre. Makes China's 522 look positively gargantuan by comparison.

In practice

Leaving aside the political motivation of using the guilt-trip approach to further a far left cause there seems to be a dearth of analysis on what per capita emissions/carbon footprints actually represent.

The best description I've seen of life in low carbon footprint countries is that it is brutal and short.

From there you should be able to deduce that a correlation exists between quality of life and life expectancy and the size of a person's carbon footprint.

The vast majority, probably 90%, of your carbon footprint is outside of your control. The footprint of maintaining base load power, airport, roads, hospitals, education institutions, the public service, ports and the rail network is unaffected by the action an individual takes.

We are told that it is better to take the bus to work than take the car. How, then, do you pick up the kids from school on the way home? How do you get to the doctor during your lunch break? How do you get your kids to and from sporting events on the weekend? On the bus or train? Seriously?

Why not reduce your consumption of meat? Cows, sheep and pigs are large emitters of the dreaded methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The fact that we can't actually detect CH4 in the atmosphere that's caused by animals or that it's actually reducing is irrelevant to the logic of the argument.

If everyone was a vegetarian then vast swathes of the earth's surface would have to be given over to agriculture. One of the biggest causes of climate change is land use change. It's quite possible that greater damage would be done in this scenario than what is currently being claimed for meat production.

Has anybody bothered to do the calculation?

When Big Green activists attack the size of a carbon footprint what they are really doing is launching an assault on not only your quality of life but your life expectancy, as well.

The irony is that all of the solutions being proposed have already been tried before.

People eating little meat. Most of the population not owning cars and using public transport. Everyone living in small flats and using very little energy for heating or cooling.

It was called the Soviet Union; a country in which I was lucky enough to spend eighteen months in at the height of the Cold War when I was growing up.

People's quality of life? Abominable.

The quality of the environment? Ironically, truly abominable.

Life expectancy? Low.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain those on the far left have now erected the Climate Curtain behind which similar misery awaits those foolish enough to adopt Big Green policies.

Impacting Australia

Like the Soviet Union the latest Marxist fad-du-jour, Climate Change, relies on modern day Useful Idiots such as the affable Malcolm Farr and articulate Karen Middleton to support its seemingly benign message by not doing what should be a reporter's first duty - analyse and verify.

While accepting the premise that 'per capita emissions' is meaningful Farr and Middleton fail to balance that against the fact that China emits 15 times as much CO2 as Australia does and that any attempt to reduce emissions in Australia without having China on board in a global scheme is not only futile but irresponsible, as well.

Have Farr or Middleton ever thought about where their logic leads?

Assume that over the next 50 years Australia remains static per head of population and that both China and India catch up to equal Australia.

What's the effect?

The current top 10 nations emit around 22,000 million tonnes of CO2 of which China emits 5,010 (using the list on Wikipedia from 2004; while emissions have increased since then the various ratios will not change in a way material to the point of this article).

When China and India have 'caught up' then they alone will emit 38,000 million tonnes of CO2 out of the top 10's 53,000 million tonnes (assuming the rest of the world remains static, which it can't, as China and India can't grow without other nations, probably less developed, doing the same).

Consider this. If Australia can reduce its per capita emissions by 60% by 2050 and in that year China and India have increased their emissions to match that number then they will still emit 23,000 million tonnes of CO2 - more than the current top 10 does now.

Do Farr and Middleton (who I've used in this article as proxies for the gaggle of special interest groups that dribble on about per capita emissions) really think that this future is not already locked in?

Therefore, shouldn't we be ensuring that Australia remains internationally competitive allowing it to maintain a strong economy and build up its reserves in the Future Fund in order to deal with any climate change that is inevitably coming our way (using the unlikely assumption that climate models are correct)?

This is the point at which left and right diverge. One is driven by good intentions, emotion and compassion. The other is driven by positive outcomes.

With Australia's future at stake is it any wonder that those of us on the conservative side of politics are arguing so forcefully for logic and reason to prevail?

(Nothing Follows)


Anonymous said...

Where are you at ? you haven't posted anything since august 5th ...

Anonymous said...

Logic and reason? You may have wanted to use these in your writing to validate points through scientific data. Much of your data is flawed, here's just two points: methane is growing significantly, http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2008/20080423_methane.html

Raising livestock requires 5-10 times more land than growing food in order to obtain the same caloric food level. Thus meat eating is the primary cause of deforestation. http://oregonstate.edu/~muirp/trophic.htm