Of the two main news stories in Australia yesterday–the global financial crisis and the release of the final Garnaut report on the economics of climate change–the latter was the more puzzling and, in the long run, the more disturbing. After an initial draft which seemed eminently sensible and coherent (see my post of July 7) an interim draft moved to an incomprehensible position, with cuts of around 5% to 10%, and an acceptance of a global carbon dioxide level of 550 ppm (implying an acceptance of catastrophic climate change and a planet increasingly hostile to human populations).
One can only assume that after the initial draft the professor was told in no uncertain terms that his proposed recommendations on emissions cuts (which will largely determine the national emissions cap for the proposed ETS) would be politically unacceptable. One can guess that he was simply given the 5%-10% figure and told to work with it. Perhaps Garnaut’s linking of these cuts to the 550ppm figure was his only way of indicating his displeasure–making the point that if these levels are insisted on that is the kind of world we were committing to. One would prefer to think that, given the general academic regard in which Garnaut is held.
Whatever the past events (and note that I am simply speculating, not asserting) the final report is confusing from a policy perspective. The oddest thing about it is the linking of targets to the trajectory of international events. Apparently if there is a global commitment to 450ppm, cuts of 20% by 2020 and 90% would be the appropriate policy response. If, as Garnaut now appears to believe is likely, there is no such global commitment, the 5%-10%/550ppm formula is held to be appropriate. So, then, is he asserting this?–that if the international community looks as though it is failing the human population (and, being an economist and not a political or social scientist, Garnaut is perhaps unaware of how difficult it would be to identify a point at which that can be said definitively to have occurred), Australia is supposed to say, well, that didn’t work, it looks as though we’re heading for environmental catastrophe, so let’s not stress the economy too much in the meantime because no one else is? It’s strange thinking, and dangerous.
It’s very clear that Australia must act strongly on emissions now because that is the only action that lies on the path of reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change. It is the only action justified by the scientific evidence and by the basic principles of risk analysis. Strong action now preserves options if the situation eases; weak action is betting against the scientific evidence and subjecting the planet and its population (particularly the poorer majority) to extraordinary levels of risk. Clearly, also, it is only by undertaking that action that Australia will have any credibility in the global community to assist in bringing about the international collaboration about which Garnaut seems so sceptical. Finally, it is clear that we are moving into a carbon constrained world: the intelligent path to take, economically, is to move as quickly as possible to reconfigure the economy around a low carbon model, to reduce the inevitable impacts, and to position the national economy in a position of strength and leadership in the emerging low carbon world. These are hardly difficult insights to come by.
It is almost certain that the Treasury modelling due to be released shortly will show that Australia, as a wealthy country, can reduce its carbon dependence very substantially without significant impact on the quality of life. There is no doubt, based on the recent scientic evidence, that we should do so. As noted in my postings on the Flannery National Library lecture, recent modelling indicates that the global climate system may already be past the tipping point into irreversible change; under that scenario we need not only to reduce GHG emissions as quickly as possible, but to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. There are ways towards this, as discussed, but they have to be implemented now. The Independent is reporting scientific measurements in the Arctic which may indicate a surge of methane release, through chimneys from the sub-sea layer of permafrost which is now thawing. Methane is a more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide by a factor of 25. The Hadley Centre’s recent modelling indicates that the world will need to cut GHG emissions by 3% per year starting in 2010 to keep the global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade: any later or any less is likely to see irreversible damage on a large scale.
In the face of continuously emerging evidence of this kind, Garnaut’s position is difficult to comprehend. I believe he will come to regret deeply his decision to abandon his initial, well considered position, in the face of opposition concerned more to secure narrow, short-term advantage than the long-term well-being of the national and global population at large. Garnaut continues to make sound and useful recommendations for achieving cuts of the order of 25% by 2020, among them massive reforestation of the cleared mallee regions, and investment in renewable energy technology and application. These are in line with the Hansen/Flannery proposal reviewed in recent postings. Let us take these useful components of the report–the components which appeared in the initial draft–at their face value, and pay no attention to the other components, which relate to the 5%/10% option and international intransigence–which isn’t in reality an option at all.
Peter Christoff’s analysis in The Age is exemplary.