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Australia’s Invisible Energy Trade: better than most and getting even better

Australia  (orange line second from the bottom) has a lower energy intensity of use than many countries (see below for more information). On this graph. Japan is the lowest. The world average is the dark purple line. China is so high it is off the scale.

It’s part of the spin game  that almost every statistic is spun-into-oblivion, and here, thanks to Mike Wilson, is the analysis of why “per capita” statistics are meaningless.

Ross Garnaut (and dozens of others) claim Australia has a high emissions intensity of energy use. Yet Mike Wilson shows below that  Australia’s energy intensity is not just declining, it’s below the world average, and below Canada, South Africa, China and the US.

The Garnaut Review:

“Relative to other OECD countries, Australia’s high emissions are mainly the result of the high emissions intensity of energy use, rather than the high energy intensity of the economy or exceptionally high per capita income. Transport emissions are not dissimilar to those of other developed countries. Australia’s per capita agricultural emissions are among the highest in the world, especially because of the large numbers of sheep and cattle.

The high emissions intensity of energy use in Australia is mainly the result of our reliance on coal for electricity. The difference between Australia and other countries is a recent phenomenon: the average emissions intensity of primary energy supply for Australia and the OECD was similar in 1971.” — Garnaut Climate Change Review

Mike Wilson has found the statistics that expose the myth that Australian  is a high energy intensity nation. We may use a lot of energy, but we produce a lot of goods, our intensity of energy use is lower than most. Garnaut and others quote figures “per capita”, but that’s misleading if the nation in question has a small population that produces a lot of goods for the rest of the world, and especially so if those particular items are high energy creations.

Australia’s GDP is growing faster than our energy use, so even though our energy use has doubled since the mid 1970’s, Australia is using that energy more efficiently and producing more with it. Compared with the rest of the world Australia is doing very well. China may run at a low energy use “per capita”, but it’s energy use is not as effective as ours. In other words, if we push high energy manufacturing into China, it will use more energy to get the same product, and so produce more greenhouse gas in the process. At the moment China uses three or four times as much energy as Australia does when compared on a GDP basis.  — JN


Australia’s Invisible Energy Trade

Guest Post by Mike Wilson (aka Bulldust)

The full PDF Report

There are three reasons that claims that Australia is a massive per capita consumer of energy, are irrelevant.

Australians are:

  1. below average energy consumers on an energy intensity basis (i.e. energy used to generate GDP);
  2. massive net exporters of energy goods; and
  3. massive net exporters of energy embodied in non-energy goods.

Australia’s Total Energy Intensity has been declining since the 1970’s.

Australian Energy Intensity UseAustralia vs the world

People keep carping on about Australia being a high consumer of energy on a per capita basis. Well here’s Australia’s energy IU plotted against a selection of other countries:

Australian Energy Intensity Use

Australian Energy Intensity Use is low compared to many other countries

It is a tad difficult to make out the trends when China dominates the graphic (note the downward trend in China’s energy IU mentioned earlier). So here is a scaled up version of the same graph without the Chinese trend line:

Australian Energy Intensity Use

By removing China it’s possible to see just how low Australian Energy Intensity Use is.

That puts things in perspective, no? We are below average, and I mean that in the best possible way … compared to the average for all the countries. So, not only are we below average when it comes to energy consumption relative to GDP generation, but much of that energy ends up going overseas, as demonstrated previously. (If that doesn’t dispel the myth that we are intensive energy consumers in Australia, I have no idea what will.)

Australia exports Energy

Australia’s trade is going gangbusters. Australia exported merchandise (does not include services) to the tune of $231 billion in 2010, over $102 billion of which came from WA. On the flipside Australia imported $210 billion, while WA only imported $26 billion. If it wasn’t for WA we’d be running a massive trade deficit in Australia, instead we have a decent-sized trade surplus.

But what is it Australia sends overseas, and what is it we import? We export predominantly ores, metal, energy fuels and agricultural goods (iron ore $49b, coal $43b, gold $14b, petroleum $10b, natural gas $9b, etc). We import mostly highly manufactured items, with petroleum being the main exception (petroleum $16b, cars $16b, petroleum oils $10b, medicaments $8b, telecoms equipment $8b, gold $7b etc).

Now the key question … how much energy is embodied in the exports and imports from Australia? It becomes clear, after looking at the disaggregated manufacturing industry graphs that Australia predominantly exports energy intensive goods, but imports predominantly goods that are less energy intensive. In other words we send a lot of energy overseas congealed into other forms such as aluminium metal, copper, LNG etc. The amount we get back in highly manufactured goods is dwarfed by the amounts we send out.

The policy relevance

Australia a massive net exporter of energy products, but we are also a massive net energy exporter in terms of energy embodied in other goods (primarily metals and petroleum products). So when politicians seek to penalize us for our energy consumption, you must first have them stare these facts in the face and admit that much of this energy consumption is by proxy for consumers in other countries … not so much for our benefit.

I would highly recommend reading Tony Abbott’s piece in The Australian as he touches on many of the points I have covered.

The full PDF Report: Australia’s Invisible Energy Trade.

(The report also has a breakdown of the different manufacturing sectors and their energy use. Yes, mining and metal products use a lot of energy).


Thanks to Mike for all his work.

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