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Apr 18, 2013

The dirty little secret to tackling climate change

Recent data shows that without Australia's population boom, we'd probably have greenhouse gas emissions under control. So why is no one talking about whether an Australia of 62 million is environmentally sustainable?

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Forget the carbon price, forget the opposition’s Direct Action climate plan. Australia could probably meet its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without either, provided we did one thing. But you won’t hear the politicians talk about it.

A statistical analysis by Crikey, based on data released this week, indicates that if Australia’s high population growth rate were reined in, the country would already be meeting its targets to cut pollution. In fact, we’d probably be under those targets.

The federal government’s data on greenhouse gas emissions for the December quarter points to the major impact the population boom has had on Australia’s emissions. Here’s the Crikey number-crunching that shows why it might be time to talk about the environmental impact of Australia’s growing population. (This is a crude statistical analysis, but you won’t find the government — both major parties support and plan for significant population growth — doing it. So we had a go.)

Australia’s per capita emissions actually dropped between 1989 and 2012. But the population increased by 35% during that period, and overall national emissions soared by 32%. That took national greenhouse gas emissions from 418 megatonnes a year in 1990 to 552 megatonnes in 2012 (a megatonne is 1 million tonnes).

Australia has a high rate of population growth, caused in part by a relatively high rate of immigration. What would the country’s emissions be if that was not the case?

The ABS calculates that in the decade to 2007, the population grew by 1.3% pa on average, with “just under half from net overseas migration” (the rest comes from births). The proportion of population growth coming from migration increased to more than half at the end of that period; last year the federal government said migration “has in recent years had the largest impact on overall population change”. In 2009, migration provided 65% of population growth.

Based on those numbers, if Australia had net zero migration from 1989 to 2012, we can estimate the population would have increased from 16.9 million (1989) to roughly 20.4 million (2012).

And based on the government’s calculation of current per capita emissions, that would give us total national emissions in 2012 of 495 megatonnes. So our actual total emissions are 11.5% — or 57 megatonnes — higher than if we had had net zero migration.

“The short answer is that we may well be meeting that (emissions) target already if we did not have the population boom.”

So what? Well, the body politic is consumed with how to meet the bipartisan target to reduce national emissions to 537 megatonnes of emissions per year in 2020. It’s an issue that has toppled prime ministers, helped decide elections and keeps politicians awake at night.

The short answer is that we might well be meeting that target already if we did not have the population boom.

With the swelling population, it’s a different story. Australia’s headcount stands at a ticker under 23 million. The ABS predicts there will be between 31 million and 43 million of us in 2056. By 2101, the ABS estimates it could be as high as 62 million.

This above analysis is rough and is no substitute for rigorous modelling by teams of economists and demographers. It’s worth bearing in mind that per capita emissions simply divide up national emissions by the headcount, yet a chunk of those emissions are not from individual people, they come from industry (including export-oriented industry). So some of the increase in total emissions would have happened regardless of population growth. Also, it’s difficult to directly compare population growth and emissions for the exact period 1989 to 2012. However, the numbers crunched here do point to an aspect to the climate debate that is seldom discussed at the political level: more people means higher emissions.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd famously declared he believed in a “big Australia“; in the ensuing criticism both major parties toned down the rhetoric, but neither major party has moved away from significant population growth fuelled by skilled migration.

Tony Mohr, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s manager of climate change campaign, calls for a stabilisation of Australia’s population. “More people in Australia means more roads, more energy use and more greenhouse gas emissions,” Mohr told Crikey. “Population is one driver of emissions growth in Australia.”

He says Australia should address the problem rather than “add fuel”. “We’ve already got a really big emissions footprint … certainly taking another look at our skilled migration would help reduce the growth in our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Mohr calls on politicians to debate the impacts of population growth on the environment and cities. He adds the ACF did not support reducing Australia’s humanitarian intake, which is a fraction of the overall migration intake. In the 2010 election campaign, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said:

“I do not believe in the idea of a big Australia; an Australia where we push all the policy leavers into top gear to drive population growth as high as we can. Australia cannot and should not hurtle down the track towards a big population.”

However, Labor has done little to seriously challenge projections of significant population growth (apart from criticising the 457 visa program). Tony Burke, the federal Minister for Population, has issued 46 media releases this year, but none appear to be about population. Last year Burke issued an 86-page sustainable population policy, which appears to make no recommendations on what Australia’s population should be.

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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68 thoughts on “The dirty little secret to tackling climate change

  1. Geoff Russell

    Climate scientists have been saying for more than a few years that emission reduction percentages are entirely the wrong way to think about the problem. The critical thing is to work out the budget of what we can put up into the atmosphere. For CO2, it doesn’t actually matter much WHEN we put it up. The estimates from various scientists agree reasonably well so lets pick one for definiteness. James Hansen has calculated that we need to phase out coal (globally) by 2030 so that most of it is left in the ground. We can afford to burn most of the known oil (but none of the tar sands) and a little gas, but that’s it.

    It’s not a question of when but how much.

    The implication is clear. Reducing by even quite large amounts can fail if it doesn’t get us to a sustainable long term point within the available budget. The sustainable long term point is about 1 tonne of CO2eq per person per annum. We have to plan to have energy systems in place by 2030 that will enable us to stop coal, all of it. If we don’t start building those now, then we won’t have them in 2030. Pissing around putting solar panels on roofs will not get us to that long term sustainable point. Pissing around with coal seam gas won’t get us there either, especially if methane leaks end up making this a far worse energy source than even coal.

    It took the French 20 years to get long term sustainable electricity, they just need much more of it. If we don’t start with nuclear now, we won’t be anything like at the sustainable point by 2030 or even 2050.

  2. Alex

    Perhaps one of the reasons that politicians pursue population growth is because it contributes to higher economic growth, particularly as measured by GDP, so governments can better demonstrate their success. However; GDP figures might be more enlightening if they were quoted on a per-capita basis, but this is rarely done as an increasing population produces a lower figure. Really, our per-capital GDP (a measure of individual wealth) is increasing at 1% p.a., or so, less than the GDP itself. The 1% p.a. difference being the approximate rate of the population growth.

    Also, I suspect that much of our immagration is driven by business interests, particularly in the resources sector, but, I don’t think there’s an overall economic benefit from an increasing population. Mining resources are finite, so they’ll be exhausted eventually, regardless, and rushing to extract them just shortens the duration of Australia’s mining boom. If there was no net increase in the labour force, then, presumably, the mining resources would be extracted at a lower rate, with labour costs reaching a higher equilibrium level than they might otherwise. As well as higher wages, the profits and mineral resource taxes and levies would be spread amongst a smaller population, with each of us being better off on average. The only ones who might not fair as well they do now, are the shareholders of mining companies, so the industry lobbies hard and successfully for as much skilled (and unskilled) labour as possible.

    So, we the encumbant population, would be better off, and the resource boom would last longer if the labour force wasn’t supplemented by immigrants, both permanent and temporary. I don’t believe we need to rush to catch the resource boom, the world’s growing in population and wealth, and there’s always going to be a strong demand for resources, no doubt moderated at times by relatively minor short-term business cycles.

    Whether this is a good reason to curb immigration, is another matter. There’s a lot of very poor and desperate people out there, and I personally feel we can afford to keep our doors open, and we have a moral obligation to do so. We’re a disgustingly well off lot, compared to most other countries, although I have no doubt that there are desperately poor people in Australia and a lot more could be done to spread the wealth more evenly. But, that’s another matter, again.

    I concede my outlook is well over on the left side of the political divide and I’m very comfortable with my values and outlook.

  3. Cathy Alexander

    This report by academics for the Immigration Department (2010) is good stuff. It looks at the impacts of immigration on the natural and built environments.


    Key findings: “The modelling demonstrates an approximately linear correlation between the NOM [net overseas migration) level and the magnitude of many impacts at any given year.”

    “The level of [GHG] emissions is sensitive to levels of NOM, and grow in an accelerating manner with time.”

    Then there is this rather off finding (not relevant to this story but piqued my curiosity): “The micro-scale analysis revealed that increased traffic congestion caused by higher
    levels of NOM is estimated to reduce people‘s subjective well-being by up to 10% of their income”.

  4. Mark Duffett

    marcfranc and Cathy, I think we’ve been here before: http://www.crikey.com.au/2008/12/11/clive-hamilton-v-paul-kelly-climate-death-match/?wpmp_switcher=mobile#comment-6632

    According to Clive Hamilton, “on average an immigrant to Australia is responsible for double the greenhouse gas emissions they would have emitted had they not emigrated.”

  5. Julien Peter Benney


    the myth to be dispensed with is that Australia has ever been a first-world nation: it never has and never will be.

    What Australia has been ever since European settlement is a high-income mineral-exporting nation, whose closest allies are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and the Gulf oil states.

    These nations have the very lowest primary productivity in the world, but are sufficiently rich in inorganic resources that they match the high-productivity extratropical northern and western hemispheres in wealth in a manner Michael Huston overlooks somewhat.

    However, whilst the extratropical northern and western hemispheres tend to lean politically to the left because of their mountainous terrain and limited high-cost housing stock, Australia and its allied nations are mainly flat and have abundant housing space. Along with the strong political power of their mineral companies, who largely control government policy as even the sceptical Kevin Williamson on page 137 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism admits, this causes Australia and allied states to lean politically far to the right, with much smaller welfare states and very limited business regulation. These drive the high immigration and fertility in Australia, although as Tim Flannery and Jared Diamond show Australia has been overpopulated relative to the carrying capacity of its ancient soils for a good fifty years.

    The only way to deal with the immigration problem lies in making Australia’s relative living costs much higher – which actually means the “Enriched World” (extratropical Eurasia and the Americas, plus New Zealand) needs to lower relative living costs through smaller government, which the political power of unions and large welfare populations strictly forbids.

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