National Identity and Energy Portfolios: What’s the Correlation?

National Identity and Energy Portfolios: What’s the Correlation?

To what extent are our perceptions of different nation’s energy portfolios impacted by notions of national identity?

March 26, 2023

3.5 min read; 697 words

Tags: Energy Policy

Author: Thomas Bartlett

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. This sentence in itself, especially to an American audience, immediately connotes notions of great natural beauty, environmental sustainability and energy renewability. Indeed, the allure of Australia consisting of white sand beaches and dynamic, vast and beautiful ecosystems is a stereotype which exists very prominently overseas. The extension of this categorisation is a belief that Australia is an incredibly progressive social nation, specifically in relation to our climate practices.

And, whilst the outdoors and nature were staples of my childhood, the national identity of Australia as a green, extremely progressive, and eco-friendly nation does not (sadly) extend itself to our energy portfolio.

Regularly, I find myself explaining that Australia ranks as the 10th highest global producer of CO2 per capita, at 15.09 tonnes per capita. This places us in the vicinity of Middle Eastern fossil fuel emitting powerhouses Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, amongst others. Yet, from a purely optics perspective, this is surprising to many.

The discrepancy between the reality of Australia’s energy portfolio and its falsified global perception, is in some parts due to our national identity. For many, it is impossible to visualize Australia not only in a pejorative light but also as a nation that is so destructive to the natural world.

We have seen a stagnation in Australia’s transfer to a renewable energy portfolio for a plethora of reasons, but a few stand out.

  1. Inherently linked to the above, is the notion that Australia can get away with inaction surrounding climate change on a global scale because of identity. Despite consistently poor rankings in all global climate change metrics such as Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), the heat regularly falls on states such as China, Russia, and the USA due to the size of their population and their identity as industrial powerhouses.

  2. Australia is a nation brimming with natural resources, and fossil fuels are no exception. For example, in 2020, Australia was the largest global exporter of coal based on energy production, in the world. Shockingly, 37.3% of Australia’s landmass is covered by coal and gas licences, or applications, which amounts to 285 million hectares of land. Of course, such unmitigated access to fossil fuels makes it more difficult to transition to a portfolio with higher concentrations of renewable energy, as it is far more of a conscious decision and reflects inefficient processes.

  3. Finally, decades of political gambits and hollow promises have hamstrung any form of meaningful change pertaining to the climate at the political level. This was summarised recently when ex-Australian Resource Minister Keith Miller declared that Australia will “continue to sell coal for as long as the world is willing to buy it.”

Ultimately, this leaves us with a depiction of Australia as somewhat of a paradox. At a surface level, it is a nation which is environmentally progressive and very green. However, at a deeper level, my country of origin neglects its responsibility to be a global contributor to the fight against climate change and is rarely held accountable for it, due to an outdated and incorrect characterisation of the land Down Under.

As a point of comparison, a nation such as Iceland, has an energy portfolio which very much fits with its global identity. Nationally, Iceland is recognized as a country which is both innovative and socially progressive. This is reflected in its comparative lack of fossil fuel use, with 89% of their primary energy coming from renewable resources. Moreover, the majority of their fossil fuels are used in the fishing and transport industries. None of it is produced within Iceland - it is all imported. In this sense, we see this portfolio as in line with Iceland’s perception on the global scale.

Perhaps then, when evaluating a nation’s energy portfolio there is more to consider than meets the eye. Regularly, we cannot use our predisposed perceptions of different countries, and how progressive they are, to make an informed opinion on carbon emissions. As Australia shows us, even the most seemingly green and liberal nations may have a dark, fossil-fuelled underbelly.

Moving forward, transparency, and education are the keys to combatting the stereotypes which plague our judgements of different nation’s energy portfolios.

Thomas Bartlett is a sophomore studying PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and Environmental Sustainability and Management at The University of Pennsylvania.