Artwork showing emmissions of different countries (not to scale)
Artwork showing emmissions of different countries (not to scale)
4 min read

Climate Change

Explainer

Interactive: How Australia compares to the rest of the world on CO2 emissions

With Australia's climate policies in the international spotlight, the interactive graphic below shows how the country's carbon dioxide output compares with others, and sees it rank as the highest emitter among OECD member countries.

Published Thursday 4 November 2021
Source: SBS News

As world leaders flex their environmental credentials and urge one another to better them amid the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Australia has come under fire. 

Its climate policies have been criticised by allies Britain and the United States, as well as Pacific neighbours that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

And while Australia’s total carbon emissions are not as significant as those of other nations, they rise further when taking into account fossil fuel exports and other trade. Furthermore, when looking at emissions on a per capita basis (to account for population size), Australia’s annual footprint stands out. 

Per capita emissions are calculated by dividing a country's total emissions by its population.

How does Australia compare?

According to 2019 figures from Our World in Data - the most recently available per capita data - each person in Australia emits 16.3 tonnes of CO2 annually. The data finds the international average to be 4.72 tonnes annually per capita, meaning Australia’s footprint is more than three times above that.

In terms of the per capita emissions of all nations, Australia sits in 13th place. But when ranked among countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – a group of 38 nations generally regarded as being developed and high-income – Australia ranks first as the bloc’s highest emitter per capita.

The interactive graphic below shows how Australia's citizens compare to those in other nations across the globe, and how each country has improved things over the past 30 years.

Which countries are the highest emitters per capita?

The Our World in Data figures looked at production-based emissions – or those produced within boundaries without accounting for trade. According to the data, the world’s highest annual emitter per capita is Qatar with 38.6 tonnes. 

The Caribbean countries of Curacao (31.8 tonnes) and Trinidad and Tobago (27.1) were second and fourth, while Kuwait (25.6), Brunei (21) and Bahrain (20.9) also ranked high on the list. 

The Pacific island of New Caledonia was third with 29.9 tonnes.

Australia's 13th position is just ahead of the United States (16.1 tonnes) and Canada (15.4) in 14th and 16th place respectively, and marginally behind Saudi Arabia (17) in 11th spot. 

Which countries are the lowest emitters per capita?

According to the data, African nations make up the vast majority of the world’s lowest emitters.

Afghanistan, with 0.28 tonnes of annual emissions per capita, was the only non-African country to sit among the 22 lowest emitters.

The Central African Republic, Chad, Burundi, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo each had annual emissions per capita of 0.06 tonnes or less.

Why does measuring 'per capita' matter?

Malte Meinshausen, an associate professor at The University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences, said while looking at emissions through a per capita lens doesn't tell the whole story of what happens inside a country, it is a good way of comparing countries with each other.

“It gives you a good indicator about what the average lifestyle is [in that country],” he said.

“You can have some countries where you have rich people being very high emitters and a lot of people being rather poor and not emitting much. However, if you compare different countries, it does tell you a great deal.

“There are multiple more dimensions that you want to look at if you want to have a complete picture, but per capita is the best starting point.”

Ahead of COP26, Energy Minister Angus Taylor defended Australia’s emissions reduction efforts, saying they were down by 20.8 per cent on 2005 levels. 

He also said Australia was on track to reach up to 35 per cent reductions by 2030 with the support of the government’s technology-focused roadmap. 

“That's better than New Zealand, better than Canada, the two other big developed countries who are commodity exporters [and] better than the United States, Japan, and the OECD average,” he told reporters in Canberra. 

Interactive by Ken Macleod. Lead artwork by Jono Delbridge and Karin Zhou-Zheng. Additional reporting by Evan Young.