At the height of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, ash from Australia’s scorched forests coated glaciers in New Zealand, and smoke drifted across the Pacific Ocean to Chile. It was a moment in which Australia’s climate crimes cast a pall over the world. Events like this, however, give only the briefest glimpse of the truly immense, and for the most part much less visible, scale of destruction our business and political leaders are responsible for.
Every day, from one side of the globe to the other, steel mills and power stations fill the sky with pollution from Australian fossil fuels. These emissions—were they to be factored into Australia’s carbon footprint—would, according to a recent analysis by Australian Financial Review columnist Adrian Blundell-Wignall, propel Australia into third position in the ranks of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, behind only China and the US.
Narrowing the horizon of Australia’s measured climate impact to emissions produced within its borders has allowed politicians to downplay Australia’s role. Australia’s domestic emissions—as the likes of Scott Morrison frequently point out—make up only around 1 percent of the global total. The message is that, while climate action may be important on a global level, what happens in Australia doesn’t matter that much.
Of course, even considered purely in terms of domestic emissions, Australia is among the world’s worst climate criminals—ranking sixth for emissions per capita, behind only major oil producers like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. However, this conceals the true scale of Australia’s climate crimes. The worst of these are laundered: exported to the emissions balance sheets of other countries.
So how do we measure Australia’s hidden carbon footprint? Each year corporations have to report their estimated emissions to the federal government, as part of the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (NGER) scheme, which forms the basis for our official emissions figures. The scheme requires businesses to report their “scope 1” and “scope 2” emissions.
Scope 1 emissions are direct (for instance, emissions from a coal-fired power plant), while scope 2 emissions are indirect (a factory using power generated by a coal-fired power plant). Between them, they cover basically everything that happens domestically. What they don’t cover is what happens to all the fossil fuels Australia exports, which is a big deal when you’re talking about the largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world.
“Scope 3”, or “downstream”, emissions cover the full supply chain: from extraction through to the production, transport and, crucially, the use of fossil fuels overseas. But the NGER scheme requires no reporting of scope 3 emissions, and doesn’t factor them into Australia’s carbon footprint.
By ignoring scope 3 emissions, Australia could, hypothetically, achieve net zero emissions by 2050, or even real zero emissions domestically, while continuing to extract and export large quantities of fossil fuels. If Australia were one big coal mine, then the government’s reporting amounts to measuring the emissions created to keep the shafts lit and the machines on, while turning a blind eye to the trains departing with the coal it produces.
Figuring out Australia’s scope 3 emissions is challenging, as companies produce the information only voluntarily. Blundell-Wignall’s analysis extrapolates from scope 3 data provided by a number of the major polluters. Based on this, he found that “Australia is responsible for a total of 3,320 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, roughly five times the official scope 1 and 2 number”.
Calculated in this way, Australia’s emissions would compose 9.4 percent of the global total. This compares with China at 26.7 percent and the US at 13 percent. Of course, accounting for scope 3 emissions in China and the US would shift their numbers too. But for China at least, due to its reliance on fossil fuel imports, it would likely lower them.
It can be hard to conceptualise the colossal scale of Australia’s exports. Of the 452 million tonnes of “saleable” coal mined in Australia in the 2019-20 financial year, 85 percent, or 384 million tonnes, was exported. What does 384 million tonnes look like? Aurizon is Australia’s largest operator of freight rail, and its newest coal wagons are about 50 percent larger than the average urban train carriage in Melbourne or Sydney. Each wagon can carry just under 100 tonnes of coal. So imagine the carriage of your local train. Fill it with coal. Then imagine a train with a hundred of those carriages (the average for Aurizon’s freight trains) pulling 10,000 tonnes of coal.
Four out of five of these trains will be headed not for a domestic power station, but for a port like Newcastle or Gladstone. There the coal will be loaded onto a bulk carrier. Spanning between 200 and 300 metres in length, the largest of these leviathans, Capesize bulk carriers, can take up to twenty trains’ worth of cargo—200,000 tonnes of coal. To move Australia’s total 2019-20 coal exports of 384 million tonnes, you’d need almost 2,000 of these bulk carriers—amounting to five departures every day for a year. Add to that the 79 million tonnes of LNG exported in the same year, and you have the picture of a world-class, world-scale climate criminal.
The contribution this makes to global warming is bad enough. But the direct health impacts have to be considered too. All around the world—in the streets of Beijing, Nagoya, Mumbai, Paris or Rio de Janeiro—people are breathing air polluted by emissions from the burning of Australian coal or gas. Research published earlier this year in Environmental Research journal found that in 2012 alone air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 10.2 million deaths globally. Sixty-two percent of these were in China and India—two of the largest destinations for Australia’s polluting products.
Australia’s climate crimes cast a long shadow, impacting on many millions of people beyond our borders—not only during exceptional events like the Black Summer bushfires, but day in, day out, 365 days a year. The profit windfall being enjoyed by Australia’s mining barons is coming at the cost of human lives on a massive scale. And as the destructive effects of global warming mount, the cost of their climate crimes, and those of the political leaders who so loyally serve them, will only grow.