Climate change

September 30, 2008

Climate Change Review – Final Report

Filed under: Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — Barry Brook @ 10:28 pm

The long-awaited, much-anticipated Final Report of the Garnaut Climate Change Review has now been released. As per its website, the review was set up to: “…examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, and recommend medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity.” It is an independent study by Professor Ross Garnaut, which was commissioned by Australia’s Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments.

A draft report was released in June, and engendered much discussion in the media, as well as a vocal response from scientists. Here is what I had to say on it at the time:

The Garnaut Draft Review is an extensive document and very much a work in progress. But the key fundamentals are already there. It rightly points out that the scientific evidence for climate change, on which hard economic decisions must ultimately hinge, is already flashing some extremely worrying warning signals: carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change are tracking at or above the top end of predictions made a decade ago, tipping elements such as the Arctic sea ice and polewards expansion of the tropical weather systems are being crossed decades ahead of schedule, and because of amplifying carbon-cycle feedbacks, were are now close to the time at which this ‘diabolical problem’ runs away from us, and which point neither mitigation nor adaptation will be sufficient for us to cope.

Our great natural assets – the Great Barrier Reef, the wetlands of Kakadu, the enormously productive agricultural basin of the Murray-Darling system – will be severely degraded or all but eliminated within the lifetimes of current generations. As Garnaut said, we should have moved on this issue years or decades earlier, when potential impacts were already reasonable well understood and yet greater uncertainty about the extent of the problem existed, compared to today.

By explicitly recognising these harsh realities, the Garnaut Report positions the economic and social arguments within the right frame of reference – one in which urgent action is required, and where forward-looking domestic action from the developed world, especially nations that are exquisitely sensitive to climate change impacts, must be the trigger for international multilateral agreements – which are ultimately the only way to solve the problem, and at the same time spawn the energy revolution of the new century – renewables, not fossil carbon.

Unlike the most up-to-date climate modelling, which has recently been detailed by the IPCC, the full economic modelling of impacts will await a supplementary draft report in August. However, some clear points have already been made in this report:

  • Scenarios that project a business-as-usual pathway towards a 700% increase in the size of the Australian economy, and a greater per capita wealth of the average Indian compared to Australians by 2100, are pure fantasy – there are not only insufficient fossil fuels available to meet the needs of this model scenario, but the multitude of damaging impacts that would be caused by the resulting catastrophic climate changes mean that societal collapse, rather than unconstrained growth, would be the order of the century, for the world economy in general and for Australia specifically.
  • Scenarios which explicitly attempt to build in the costs of climate change impacts show major disruptions to our economic, environmental and social well being, amounting to, conservatively, hundreds of billions of dollars of additional economic burden each and every year. And these stated costs are an absolute minimum: rather than try to put a dollar value on the lives of future generations, or the irreplaceable loss of millions of species and natural treasures, or on the staggering potential costs of crossing run-away tipping points such as the collapse of the polar ice sheets, these are quite deliberately left out the Garnaut Report economic modelling. After all there is a price that goes well beyond what humanity is willing to pay, or indeed able to pay, to impacts that are impossible to pay for, or to build into economically rationalist thinking.

The Garnaut Review team has also released a variety of working papers on targets and trajectories, low emissions energy technologies, emissions trading schemes, land use and forestry, managing financial risks, and the need to develop new emissions scenarios to better reflect development in the so-called ‘Platinum Age’. They are definitely worth reading.

The Final Report is a huge document – both in coverage and implications – and it will obviously take time to digest the details. I’d be very interested in considered feedback on it from Brave New Climate readers – from all perspectives. This is clearly a critically important thing to get right, because the government is yet to write its policy white paper, which will give final form to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Now has never been a better time to make your voice heard! This Open Thread is one place where you can have a chance to debate these matters.

Update: My reaction to the Final Report (for other scientist’s views, read here).

The Garnaut Climate Change Review is a landmark achievement. The depth of thought and research that Garnaut and his team have given to the impacts and implications of climate change is profound, and there are many powerful insights given into how a cooperative global agreement might be reached – and what it could look like. Those convening the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 should be grateful – much of the necessary intellectual groundwork for this key meeting has been laid out in the Final Report.

The impacts of unmitigated climate change, as modelled in the review’s ‘Platinum Age’ scenarios, are certainly frightening, both in terms of the staggering economic and environmental damage that will result. And that’s without ‘non-market costs’ being factored in. The abiding message from the review is clear – we cannot afford to go to the dark and unpleasant future that business-as-usual threatens to take us – so let’s instead work out how we best manage an alternative, low-carbon future, as soon as is physically and socially possible.

The recommendation that Australia should reduce its per capita emissions by 95% by 2050 is certainly one the government ought to openly address – do they agree with this assessment (and if not, why not?), and how are they going to meet such a target? This brings the issue back to the absolutely key question of how we achieve transformative change. That is, we could reach such ‘ambitious’ emissions reductions targets easily, because we’ve developed an entirely new and renewable energy infrastructure which delivers huge benefits to Australia and allows us to export this knowledge and huge amounts of clean energy to a worldwide market. Or we could continue to look backwards, to a Victorian Era style of coal-based energy investment, which leaves us far behind these lofty ambitions, and takes the planet to climate purgatory for bad measure.

Seems a clear enough choice to me.

Footnote: Garnaut on ‘Dissenters’… (Final Report, Introduction, pg xvii):

Scientific opinion and dissent
There is no doubt about the position of most reputed specialists in climate science, in Australia and abroad, on the risks of climate change (Chapter 2). There is no doubt about the position of the leaders of the relevant science academies in all of the major countries. The outsider to climate science has no rational choice but to accept that, on a balance of probabilities, the mainstream science is right in pointing to high risks from unmitigated climate change.

There are nevertheless large uncertainties in the science. There is debate and recognition of limits to knowledge about the times and ways in which the risk will manifest itself. Every climate scientist has views on some issues that differ from the mainstream in detail.

There are prominent dissenters on this matter, gathered under the rubric of ‘sceptic’. For the most part ‘sceptic’ is a misnomer for their position, because these dissenters hold strongly to the belief that the mainstream science is wrong. In a different category are a small number of climate scientists of professional repute who maintain that the mainstream science embodies misjudgments about quantities. These scientists, who accept the theory of the warming effects of higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, hold the view that these warming effects are relatively or even trivially small in comparison with many other causes of climate variations that are beyond the control of humans.

The dissent took a curious turn in Australia in 2008, with much prominence being given to assertions that the warming trend had ended over the last decade. This is a question that is amenable to statistical analysis, and we asked econometricians with expertise in analysis of time series to examine it. Their response—that the temperatures recorded in most of the last decade lie above the confidence level produced by any model that does not allow for a warming trend—is reported in Chapter 4 (Box 4.1).

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