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You can’t have your yellow cake and eat it too

By Chris Dey and Manfred Lenzen - posted Tuesday, 12 December 2006

The future of Australia’s energy needs has opened a discussion about the various sources of power and how these will be able to sustain our increasing demand over the next 50 years and beyond.

There is divided opinion about nuclear energy with important issues including the potential misuse of uranium, long-term disposal of radioactive waste, and the infrastructure that needs to be created in order to support nuclear power, being cited as key concerns. However, nuclear power is an energy source that will produce less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, effectively helping to dissipate possibly the even more serious problem of climate change.

While Australia has, in the main, depended on coal as its main source for generating electricity, coal mining and combustions produce high levels of GHG emissions that lead to potentially dangerous climate change. It does not appear that by 2050 renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, will be able to supply sufficiently large amounts of energy, at any time of demand, to an ever-burgeoning population.


It has often been argued that Australia contributes only negligibly to global emissions, and that China and India contribute much more, and that therefore those countries should be made to act to decrease their emissions. Since climate change is a global concern, it is our considered opinion that this issue addresses all of us equally as people, as personal affluence is the main determinant for the level of emissions.

Twenty five per cent of the world’s affluent population cause 75 per cent of global emissions. Therefore the responsibility for abatement has to be measured per capita and not per country. In other words, we should not be comparing Australia versus India but rather Australians versus Indians.

Emissions in Australia have been increasing at an average rate of 2.3 per cent a year since 1970. The main driver for this is affluence.

In detailed research on the changes in the Australian economy over the last 35 years, we have shown that affluence increases have clearly outstripped technological improvements. The average Australian emits 26 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, which is about 17 times more than the average Indian.

This demonstrates how the issue of climate change is very much entwined with the issue of global inequity. Why is this so? The basic story is that rich countries have high emissions, and poor countries have low emissions. This is due to material comforts such as cars, plasma televisions, computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, washing machines - basically modern comforts that are taken for granted in more affluent countries but not necessarily owned by citizens in those less developed nations.

In fact, the average world citizen emits about just five tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. To give all people on the planet an equal right to emit, Australians alone would need to reduce their emissions by 80 per cent, down from 26 tonnes to 5 tonnes.


Of course, this involves a major cultural change that can only commence with the commitment of individuals to make a difference in their lifestyles. For instance: are people really willing to use less power, walk or take public transport rather than drive a car?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body that collates information on the science and impacts of climate change, has drawn up future scenarios that would lead to the stabilisation of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 450 parts per million, which is almost double the pre-industrial level.

Under this scenario, we have to halve emissions globally by 2050, leaving just 2.5 tonnes of CO2 a year for everyone on the planet. (Note that this scenario would still lead to an average global warming of +2C and many climatic disruptions.)

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Professor Manfred Lenzen and Dr Chris Dey took part in last week’s Sydney Ideas forum: ‘Is Australia’s Future Nuclear?’

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About the Authors

Dr Chris Dey is a research physicist from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group at the University of Sydney’s School of Physics.

Professor Manfred Lenzen is a research physicist from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group at the University of Sydney’s School of Physics.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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