“Australia coming last on climate” was one headline, in Fairfax.

“Australia ‘not ready’ for climate deal” another, in The Oz.

In case you were under any illusions, a heavily coal-reliant economy with no effective carbon abatement policy to speak of and none likely for another decade, was well-positioned to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, British consultants Vivid Economics have found Australia ranks pretty much at the bottom of the world in terms of our capacity to adapt, assessed in relation to the G20.

Here’s the interesting thing, though, and it points to an issue that will complicate how we handle climate change and effective carbon emissions abatement: the report is biased against Australia.

I don’t doubt Australia is seriously ill-prepared to shift to a low-carbon economy. We’re one of the planet’s biggest carbon dealers, sending CO2 abroad by the megatonne and generating plenty of it here ourselves; we power our lifestyles and industry with coal, and the government’s CPRS is so generous to polluters it will have negligible effect on our carbon dependence. I don’t even mind a British consultant telling us that — there are far too many Australian economics consultants happy to say whatever a polluter pays them to say.

But a closer reading of the report shows that it is correct, but for the wrong reasons. It proposes a “low carbon competitiveness index” that is based on GDP per tonne of emissions, but re-weighted to take into a range of factors including deforestation, clean energy use, ease with which new businesses can be started, education levels and so on.

Australia comes 15th out of 19 countries on the index. We come last if the index is weighted purely by the composition of our economy.

Where it is biased against Australia is in the emphasis the index places on road transport and air transport, population growth and electricity generation loss, as negative factors.

Australia is, it may come as a shock to discover, a very big country and we have a relatively small population. We have the third-lowest population density in the world, with only global titans Namibia and Mongolia below us. And low population density is the enemy of infrastructure and energy efficiency. You use a lot more fuel simply moving things around. Transport infrastructure must service small, widespread communities and there are no economies of scale. Rail networks are uneconomic due to the lack of populations and markets to use them. Road and air freight, therefore, become dominant (although decades of state underinvestment in non-urban rail networks hasn’t helped). And you lose a lot of electricity transmitting it over long distances — more than 5%.

And Australia continues to be a high-immigration country to feed its high-growth economy.

The Vivid study, therefore, is weighted in favour of European economies — large but stable populations, small geographic areas, serviced by highly-efficient infrastructure.

As a major contributor to carbon emissions, transport would normally be a key area for greater efficiency. Getting people out of cars and into mass transit, moving more of the freight task onto rail, getting passengers out of the air and onto an efficient inter-city rail system. Australia’s relatively small populations, even in our cities, make that far more expensive than in European countries with high population densities. We have to build a lot more infrastructure, to be used much less.

In fact, it’s so expensive that the public sector here can’t afford it without a greater (and, again, European-style) tax take, which is why there has been a retreat of public investment in infrastructure in recent decades. The only viable solution is to charge infrastructure users — motorists, airlines, trucks — much more for their infrastructure use.

When it comes to “low carbon competitiveness” one size does not fit all, especially outside Europe.