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Australia’s oversized footprint

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Friday, 22 June 2007

For a country of just 21 million, Australia has a huge impact on the global ecosphere. Domestically, the CSIRO have just estimated that our less than one third of a per cent of the world's population produces 1.43 per cent of its CO2 (more than 4½ times our share proportionally) and there is much we could and should be doing to address that. Unfortunately, our government has been a standard bearer for the “business as usual” lobby - preferring to deny, delay and dodge any movement to address the issues.

With so many of our exports being used in industries around the world and directly contributing to global emissions, it is criminal for our government to be actively sabotaging international efforts to combat climate change.

I am not advocating a withdrawal from the export market, but if we continue to go down that path, then we must take some moral responsibility for it and be a global leader, not a spoiler, in tackling climate change.


Australia should be leading the way in shifting our economy to a sustainable footing, rather than dragging our heels, waiting for other nations to do the heavy lifting with regards to researching and implementing more responsible technologies and practices.

Suggestions by Treasurer Peter Costello that our economy will crash if we take serious action on greenhouse are as misguided as they are erroneous. There is no doubt that failure to combat and compensate for climate change will result in dire economic consequences. With rapidly changing weather patterns and unusual weather events we are leaving ourselves open to serious economic consequences in the wake of rising sea levels, droughts or floods.

These consequences of inaction would be far worse economically than any short-term pain associated with action to address human-made climate change.

However, suggestions that it will be relatively easy to adapt to the changes required to arrest or slow this environmental disaster, and that alternative jobs will just appear to replace the old ones lost in industries such as mining and logging are equally blinkered.

We cannot kid ourselves that the problem will be solved only by the application of appropriate technology and a carbon pricing mechanism. In order to have any sustainable impact we need to significantly change our behaviour. This will take some effort and some sacrifices, but with reasonable planning and good leadership, these required changes need not cause major upheavals or disadvantages.

Australia’s reliance on coal for our nation’s energy and its unwillingness to adopt alternative energy sources has contributed greatly to our status as a high carbon emitter.


As a nation we have lagged in the use of alternative energy sources despite plenty of expertise and resources. We have failed to fully embrace wind, solar, geothermal or wave power in any significant way, largely for fear of the impact this will have on our mining industry - the new “sheep’s back” we precariously live off.

Our fossil-fuel dependence and the relatively low cost of this form of energy has made it much harder to adopt alternative energy models due to lack of strong political leadership in this area. It also makes it much harder to adapt to changes in fuel reliance in the short-term.

The inevitable increase in the cost of carbon along with the abundance of fossil fuel gives Australia’s federal government much greater long-term incentives to develop alternative energy technologies. Australia cannot continue to generate high emissions and expect this to be accepted internationally. As countries examine their rate of carbon emissions and take steps to make significant reductions, Australia must not expect to receive special treatment by the virtue of our primary industry strengths. These strengths are rapidly becoming weaknesses and we are not doing enough to counter them.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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