Climate change

December 16, 2008

Time to stop pretending on emissions reduction

Filed under: Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — Barry Brook @ 10:25 pm

So the final model of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — Australia cap-and-trade system — has been released. It’s byline is ‘Australia’s ever-so-slightly-maybe Lower Pollution Future‘. Sorry, now I’m just being cynical.

There’s been plenty written about it over the subsequent 24 hours, including some comments from me here, here, here and here. I also hammered some points out in a few radio slots yesterday, but I’m not sure if the message is really getting through. A bunch of short but incisive comments from other scientists and economists is also available at the Australian Science Media Centre. They’re worth reading for (i) the diversity of issues raised and (ii) for the near unanimity of criticism of the targets and general model set forth.

The final scheme clearly rewards big polluters by handing them a swag of free permits, right up to 2020. The poor hard-done-by coal-fired power generators get the majority of these; $4 billion in the first 5 years alone — naturally (I’ll let you go figure that one out). It rightly provides significant compensation to low and middle income households, but sadly directs ~3% of the income generated into research and development on low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency. It sets a reduction target of 5% of 2000 levels by 2020, unless ‘all the major emitters come on board’, in which case the government says they’ll increase the cuts to 15%. In other words, Australia is only willing to move with the pack (actually, somewhere in the middle of the pack – you know, for extra safety). Global leaders? Forget it.

But in my opinion, the biggest problem is the sheer dishonesty about the science. If targets greater than 5% are impossible to implement on political grounds, then that’s the current reality. The government should be honest about this, and say:

This is as large a cut as we feel the community will accept, even though the science of climate change clearly show that we require much more. Accepting this current reality, our job, as government, is to now better inform you, the general public, of the seriousness of this issue, the short time frames for action, and the need for deeper cuts“.

But no. Instead we get artful political spin and greenwash, with the claim that Australia is doing something meaningful to avoid dangerous climate change and that the targets will miraculously allow us to go no higher than 450 ppm CO2. As the calculations in the Garnaut Review pointed out, this is simply false. It’s a shame the government has chosen to ignore a large swathe of the recommendations of that review, modest as they were.

I’ve opined on this further in a little piece I wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser. I’m not sure it if will end up appearing in the paper or not, but at least BNC readers can get to look at it.

With the Poznan climate conference now over, the Australian Government has announced its aim to cut greenhouse gas emission by up to 14% compared to 1990 levels by the year 2020 and 60% by 2050.

This is the centrepiece of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which is another name for a cap-and-trade system for limiting Australia’s future carbon emissions, from 2010 onwards.

In many respects 14% seems sensible. After all, it represents a 41% reduction on a per person basis. It’s in line with goals set by other developed nations such as the UK, US and European Union.

Such a target seems to walk the political middle ground.

Not too steep a cut as to anger industry who are concerned about the economic risks of action. But enough to show Australia’s doing our part in reducing the impact of climate change. Enough to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, by limiting carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million (ppm).

That, at least, is the simple political message that is being sold. Trouble is, it’s simply not true.

First, it misrepresents what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. This work shows that to have a decent chance of avoiding warming 2 to 2.4C, the world must cut emissions by up to 80% by 2050. That’s a 98% cut for Australia, per person.

Second, it pretends that more recent relevant science doesn’t exist.

Work published in 2007 and 2008–after the IPCC closed its review books–shows that global carbon emissions growth is greater than had been previously anticipated. To add despair to this despondency,  recent observations also indicate that the climate system is more sensitive to additional greenhouse gases than we’d suspected.

This means 450 ppm is could commit us to 4C or more of warming. A dangerous prospect indeed, which risks appallingly severe impacts which were described in the Garnaut review earlier this year, on the economic and environmental costs of action (or inaction) on climate change.

Now even getting to a 41% per capita emissions reduction by 2020 will be tough. Really tough.

It will require strong policy intervention to increase the adoption of energy efficiency and conservation and build-out renewable energy such as wind, solar, wave and geothermal on a massive scale. No new coal fired power stations that do not capture the carbon dioxide. And so on.

Given this requirement for transformational change to even match middle-of-the road targets, why not commit to going ‘all the way’?  Actually fully solve the crisis before it happens, rather than merely half-fixing it, with adjustment pain anyway, and yet only delay the inevitable crunch.

But such full commitment would mean decision makers have to stop pretending that their emissions reduction targets match the latest scientific evidence. Right now, they don’t. So if nothing else, let’s at least be honest with the Australian public about that.

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