Emissions; total or per-capita?

How should we consider and rate nations on their greenhouse emissions reduction performance? Should we, as the government of my country Australia does, just talk about total emissions, or should we primarily consider per-capita emissions, the total emissions divided by the number of people in the nation?

The argument that I will present in this page is that it is the per-capita emissions of a nation that is by far the most important indicator of the level of responsibility that that nation has on emissions reduction.

This page was started 2021/11/14
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

South Australia is acting on reducing emissions, but the Australian government can't see beyond the fossil fuel industries.
Renewable energy (left, foreground) is displacing coal (right, background)
Port Augusta

New solar power, coal-fired power station shutting down

This view at Port Augusta, South Australia, April 2016, nicely symbolises the decline of coal. On the left is the new solar power-tower of Sundrop Farms. The big smoking chimney is on the Northern Power Station, SA's last coal-fired power station; which was soon to close. Further right are the two chimneys of the Sir Thomas Playford coal-fired power station, which had already closed-down. The chimney stopped smoking on 2016/05/09.

At the time this photo was taken, an average of around 33% of SA's power was generated by wind farms and another 5% by solar PV. By 2021 more than 60% of the power generated in SA was renewable and both coal-fired power stations had been demolished.

South Australia had come a long way in 20 years, Tasmania was near 100% renewable electricity, the Australian Capital Territory had 100%, yet the Australian government, based in the ACT, was continuing its blind love affair with fossil fuels - and the main opposition party, Labor, was scarcely better than the ruling Liberal/National coalition.

At the time of writing Worldometers listed the highest emitting nations as China, 10.4 billions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year; USA, 5.0 and India 2.5. Worldometres gave Australia's emissions as 0.4 billion tonnes.

However, looking at per-capita emissions gives a very different picture: of the above countries Australia is the highest emitter at 17.2 tonnes, the USA next at 15.5; China 7.4 and India 1.9.

Surely any fair-minded person would conclude that while China has the greatest total emissions, among these nations it is Australia that has the greatest moral responsibility to reduce its emissions.

The average Australian is responsible for more emissions than the average American, more than twice the emissions of the average Chinese and nine times the emissions of the average Indian.

Let's look at the European Union for another example

According to the European Environment Agency total annual emissions from the EU in 2018 were 4.4 billion tonnes. The population of the EU at the time was 512.6 million, giving per-capita emissions of 8.6 tonnes.

Within the European Union Luxembourg's total emissions were 10 million tonnes, enormously lower than the EU's total of 4.4 billion tonnes. But Luxembourg's per-capita emissions were 17.5 tonnes. How unjust it would be to say that the EU as a whole, because of its total of 4.4 billion tonnes of emissions has a greater responsibility to act than Luxembourg with twice as much emissions per-capita. Yet this, in effect, is exactly what the Australian Morrison government is doing in regard to China, the USA, India and Australia.

Responsibility of journalists and media in general

Whenever a politician or some other person in the mass media uses total emissions to blame nations like China and India rather than Australia or Luxembourg for insufficient action on climate change journalists have a responsibility to point out that it is per-capita emissions that should be the primary consideration, not total emissions.

Among the nations most at fault I should also mention Qatar (highest per-capita emissions of all nations) and Canada (higher per-capita emissions than Australia).

Journalists should also point out the ethical responsibility for nations with high per-capita emissions to act with particular urgency.

Related pages

Climate change

A commentary on government

Criminal leaders

Crime against humanity

A person in a position of power who dishonestly opposes action on climate change is committing the greatest crime in the history of humanity