Australia is pumping out more carbon emissions to achieve its economic growth than almost any other major economy, while a quarter of its mammal species are threatened with extinction, according to a major new environmental audit.
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found Australia was second only to Estonia among 34 advanced nations in terms of greenhouse gas emission intensity per unit of GDP.
This measure ranks the ability of economies to grow in an environmentally efficient way, without escalating carbon emissions. Australia’s high ranking is fuelled by its reliance on coal-fired energy.
Australia has the highest per capita emissions intensity of any OECD member, the report found, emitting nearly 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person in 2010.
Australia is also lagging behind other nations when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the past two decades, according to the data.
Of the 34 nations, only Chile, Mexico, Korea and Turkey have increased their emissions more than Australia since 1990, while the UK, France, Germany and Italy all achieved cuts in that time-frame.
In terms of air pollution, Australia has a high concentration of sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide compared to other nations. These substances are linked to acidification of soil and water, as well as potential respiratory illnesses in people.
While the average OECD country had reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by about 60% since 1990, Australia’s rose by 50%.
Australia has the highest per capita emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the OECD, bar Iceland. About 110kg of sulphur dioxide is released into the atmosphere for every Australian person each year.
Australia performs better on other environmental benchmarks, decreasing the amount of fish it catches by nearly 30% since 1990 and also cutting the amount of urban waste generated since 2000 by more than the OECD average.
However, 24% of Australia’s mammal species are considered threatened, as well as one in 10 of its bird species; 11% of its land is in a protected area, such as a national park; and 28% of its marine areas are protected – the latter more than double the OECD average.
Globally, the OECD said there was “headway” in breaking the link between economic growth and environmental damage, with a 25% average drop since 1990 in the amount of energy needed to create a unit of GDP.
“Yet per capita energy use is still not falling fast enough to safeguard natural resources for a growing and ever more demanding population,” the economic organisation warned. “The overall energy mix has barely changed in two decades, with an 80% reliance on fossil fuels in the OECD bloc.”
OECD countries derive just 9% of their energy from renewable sources. Nations have also failed to meet a promise to reduce biodiversity loss, according to the OECD.
The OECD data is primarily taken up to 2010, prior to the introduction of Australia’s carbon price. Since 2010 Australia has reduced its carbon emission intensity in line with the OECD average, with the offshoring of manufacturing another important factor.
Kellie Caught, the head of climate change at the WWF, told Guardian Australia the figures showed that the Coalition shouldn’t ditch the carbon price.
“Australia’s competitors are clearly doing a lot more to decrease their emissions intensity and decouple it from economic growth,” she said.
“The last 18 months have shown that the carbon price and the renewable energy target [RET] have helped decrease emissions from the electricity sector. We risk losing those gains and keeping Australia among the worst nations for emissions intensity by scrapping the carbon price and potentially the RET too.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010