In the Yale University ‘Global Environmental Performance Index’ (EPI) report published earlier this month, Australia did not rate too well in terms of emissions and air quality. Ranked 150th out of 180 countries for carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity, we were also ranked 123rd in terms of average exposure to Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – an air quality metric. We did however manage to top the ranks in access to sanitation (1st), environmental risk exposure (1st), protection of marine areas (2nd) and access to electricity (3rd).

This 2016 EPI report ranks the performance of developed and developing countries on high priority issues in two areas – protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. Under these two sectors, it then scores each country’s performance based on the following nine criteria:

  • Health impacts
  • Air quality
  • Water and sanitation
  • Water resources
  • Agriculture
  • Forests
  • Fisheries
  • Biodiversity and habitat
  • Climate and energy

The EPI report measures how close each country is to meeting internationally agreed targets. If a specific target does not exist, it compares countries to each other using quantitative metrics. In addition to being a means of comparative analysis, this report also serves as a diagnostic tool for a country’s areas of strength and weakness, and to show how their performance has changed over time.

Key global findings of the EPI 2016 are as follows:

  • Health impacts and access to drinking water and sanitation are improving, however air quality and fish stocks have worsened
  • Economic development leads to improvements in sanitation infrastructure and less people are exposed to unsafe water, however the number of deaths attributed to air pollution have risen steadily in the last decade
  • Developing policy-relevant and science-based indicators is essential to appropriate measurement and management
  • Metrics evaluating the performance of all countries in regards to climate change action following the Paris Climate Agreement have not been established

Australia is one of the highest emitters of GHG per unit of electricity in the world

Major sources of NO2 include fossil fuel combustion and electricity generated by coal-fired power stations and motor vehicles. According to the Australian Climate Council in the electricity sector accounted for 33% of Australia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014, making it the largest emissions source. The age and inefficiency of Australia’s coal fired power stations mean that Australia is one of the highest emitters of GHG per unit of electricity in the world.

Read the 2014 Climate Council report on this issue here

On Christmas Eve last year, the Australian Government released a report which showed that GHG emissions from electricity generation had increased since 2014 by 3%, power generation from black coal by 1.4%, and brown coal generation by nearly 10%. Given these figures, our ranking of 150th out of 180 countries should come as no surprise.

Motor vehicles are a major contributor to NO2 in urban areas. In Australia, the size of our passenger vehicle fleet has grown 2.1% on average from 2010 -2015. The 2015 Government census reported more than 13.5 million passenger vehicles registered in Australia. If we continue this unsustainable pattern of growth, an audit by Infrastructure Australia predicts that by 2031 traffic congestion could be costing our economy up to $53 billion in terms of the threat to economic growth and living standards. The Infrastructure Australia Audit notes that State and Federal Governments had not implemented any significant action to mitigate the economic and environmental risks of congestion.

If the size of the Australian passenger vehicle fleet continues to grow by 2.1% as it has been over the last 5 years, it stands to reason that emissions from those vehicles (including NO2) and personal exposure to those emissions will also increase. The only real way to prevent these is for Governments to show courage and incentivise non fossil fuelled vehicles and increase expenditure on well integrated user friendly public transport (e.g. light rail) and non motorised transport infrastructure (e.g. cycle and walk paths).

The other reality Australian Governments must face is that relying on fossil fuelled electricity so heavily is becoming a thing of the past in many countries – developing and developed alike. Governments in other countries are realising the benefits of investing in renewable energy, in terms of their environmental footprint and the signal that such investments send to their private sectors and citizens. In countries such as the United States the private sector makes procurement decisions on the basis of its suppliers’ tracking their greenhouse gas emissions and implement reduction goals. Examples include the Bank of America, AT+T and L’Oreal. Citizens install renewable energy infrastructure (e.g. rooftop solar) at home – a sustainable model that reduces their environmental footprint and their reliance on the electricity grid.

As a scientist I am also very interested the health-related costs of increased congestion and accompanying pollutants. Residential areas that were once some distance from major transport routes edge closer to them as the population increases, and it is inevitable that more and more people will be exposed to both passenger and heavy vehicle emissions. With the lack of policy governing this issue, it is not a surprise that Australia was ranked 123rd out of 180 countries in terms of average exposure to NO2.

Urgent action is required to address Australia's carbon emissions and air quality

I really struggle to understand how the our Government fails to see that urgent action is required to address Australia’s carbon emissions and air quality levels. Even if I wasn’t a scientist and there were no common sources between the two, I would still wonder how many more international comparisons are required for our policy makers to realise that there has been enough talk and the time for action is now.

Given that there are common sources between carbon emissions and air quality, and numerous international comparisons have shown the Australian Government performance in this space has worsened rather than improved, I do not find Australia’s poor carbon emissions and air quality rankings in the 2016 Yale Environmental Performance Index surprising.

See the Yale University ‘Global Environmental Performance Index’ (EPI) report here

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