One year on, Garnaut's glass half full


Garnaut Climate Change ReportIf any in the audience were expecting Ross Garnaut to be bitter about the Federal Government's inadequate response to his September 2008 Review recommendations, they were wrong.

Speaking on Monday night at ANU, it was clear Garnaut remains resolutely glass-half-full. He offered a high degree of patience and equanimity. He is optimistic about the cumulative positive public impact of his Review. Listening closely to his graceful words, there were also steely messages.

Garnaut noted that climate change policy involves taking rational decisions under conditions of uncertainty and the risk of bad extreme outcomes. He is pleased that his Review's target assumptions — aiming for a 450 ppm CO2-e world 'in which Australia plays its full proportionate part', by targeting a 25 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2020, and reductions of 60 per cent or upwards by 2050 — have become part of the Australian electorate's common understanding of what must be done.

He suggests that a 450 ppm global target is the best the world can aim for now, as it will certainly be overshot for several years. He is glad that both Government and Opposition now accept the same 25 per cent 2020 target, though they differ on how to get there.

Garnaut regretted that he had during 2008 displeased some of Australia's top climate scientists by canvassing, in an earlier version of the Review, a reduced 2020 emissions target.

He had expected old-industry vested interests to attack the Review, but hoped that introducing it over several months would help build public momentum for reform. Unfortunately, the political impact of his work was not yet strong enough to prevail over 'the congenial environment in Australia for rent-seeking behaviour by established businesses'. He deplored the success of 'unprincipled' carbon protectionism in securing massive compensation under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — 'the ugliest money politics we have seen for a generation'.

Yet, he argued, it is important to pass the CPRS in its present diluted form, even if it is weakened further as the price of securing Opposition support: Australia must make a start on reform. He criticised environmentalists who oppose the CPRS on grounds that it locks in under-achievement. The Greens are allowing 'the best to be the enemy of the good, and the friend of the bad' (an allusion to the denialism now rampant in the National Party).

Garnaut suggested that support for strong carbon emission mitigation is growing strongly around the world. Australia does not risk getting out ahead of other countries in passing the CPRS, indeed Australia is already being left behind. There is now G20 acceptance that major industrialising countries must act early, in concert with — though in different ways to — major industrial countries.

The coming December 2009 UN meeting in Copenhagen will reflect this approach. Copenhagen will not yet achieve a global emissions trading system, but it will make real progress towards the only just and workable goal, of equalising per capita emissions around the world.

The US and China are proceeding apace with building renewable energy infrastructure as part of their counter-recessionary policy — 'and Australia has its pink batts'. Climate reform governments have been elected or re-elected in Japan, Indonesia and India. Developing industrial countries like Mexico and South Africa already have carbon emission reduction mechanisms in place.

In the end, global deals will be struck by heads of government sitting around a table with Obama: the negotiations are too big and complex for diplomats.

The debate within Australia this year focused too much on transitional arrangements, and not enough on how the final global mitigation system will work. Economists have become over-absorbed in detailed fine-tuning about merits of different carbon price mechanisms.

Garnaut stressed his commitment to the mainstream science view that man-made global warming is real and urgent. He described climate change denialism as 'a grasping of straws from people on the outer fringes of science'. He said he had heard out the views of Australia's leading exponent of such views, a person of scientific background, and concluded that he could not prudently accept such arguments, as the risks are too great.

Australia's best economic statisticians have reviewed the global average temperature data since 1950. They are in no doubt that a 60-year global warming trend is evident, despite an appearance of slowdown since the peak El Nino year 1998. Garnaut firmly favours market-based solutions to emissions reduction, which he sees as universal in application and less open to special interests.

Garnaut noted that Australia is one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming because much of our agricultural land is already at the hot dry margin of sustainable production. Under business-as-usual policies, the Murray-Darling basin would in 50 years come to resemble the Eyre River basin. It is probably already too late to save the Great Barrier Reef.

In closing, ANU Emeritus Professor John Molony remarked that ordinary Australian people are ahead of politicians in understanding the dangers in climate change. He noted that ordinary citizens living in the border regions of the Roman Empire had a better appreciation of the risks of barbarian invasions than did the political elites, over-absorbed in their games of power back in Rome.

The meeting, appropriately opened by a climate scientist and closed by a historian, left its predominantly young audience with a tangible feeling of hope and excitement that real change is possible.

Tony KevinFormer public servant of 30 years, Tony Kevin's latest book Crunch Time: Using and Abusing Keynes to Fight the Twin Crises of our Era, reviewed here.

Topic tags: tony kevin, anu, ross garnaut, climate change, global warming, crunch time



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Just as no government has purchased "state-of-the-art" military aircraft since WW2 because manufacturing has been decades ahead technological advance, reviews by economists such as Garnaut and Stern, even IPCC assessments, are years behind the science.

Even as Garnaut was writing his review, the tipping point of widespread thawing of permafrost was being passed; once-frozen tundra is releasing its methane, and the greenhouse is running away. In other words, the science tells us that we need to have a zero-emission economy by 2005; not 2050, not even 2025, but 2005.

It's not Garnaut's fault that he doesn't write this; he's an economist, probably didn't even attend the year 9 basic science class in which I learned about how different gases absorb energy at different wavelengths.

Putting a steadily-increasing price on carbon emissions is the best way to direct a free economy towards reducing and eliminating carbon emissions. The best way is to phase in a GST-like carbon tax. To not muck up the economy, you'd make such a tax revenue-neutral; phase out payroll tax, then a few other regressive imposts ... and you continue raising the level of carbon tax until the transformation to an emission-free economy is complete.

The recommendation of a sub-optimal economic artifice, fashioned to look like an appropriate response to the crisis, is Garnaut's fault. The CPRS is a clever scheme that creates a tradeable commodity out of the right to destroy our children' life-support system; clever commodity traders are the only people who benefit, and the $12 million people who run coal-mining companies. It creates a scarce resource of the right to pollute, and any scarce resource is subject to the sort of price instability that enriches players at the expense of every company that needs price stability in order to plan its transition to zero-emission technology.

That said, one must wonder at the moral and intellectual cowardice of the global warming deniers against whom so many, even Garnaut, have written ... and against whom nature itself is now demonstrating.

David Arthur | 16 September 2009  

I'd like to share Professor Garnaut's 'glass half full' optimism, but I'm afraid I cannot for 2 main reasons:

1.The 450ppm greenhouse gas concentration target has few atmospheric scientists' support these days. Its a target that could easily result in temperature rises in excess of 2 degrees C (relative to pre-industrial times) and these temperature rises give a high chance of runaway climate change. The Stern Report (2006) said 450ppm gives a 26-78% probability of exceeding 2 degrees! As David Spratt says, a risk averse target for 2 degrees is 350-400ppm.

2. It is said of Garnaut that he 'firmly favours market-based solutions to emissions reduction'. Not even the designer of the first small Florida-based ETS in the US thinks a global ETS will work. These market-based solutions are a product of a discredited era of 'market based triumphalism' (Michael Sandel 2009 BBC Reith Lecturer)of the 1980's & up to the global financial crisis. The US foisted cap and trade schemes on the Europeans back in the 1990's who were leery about them. US Govt reports have shown the EU scheme has not reduced emissions. Massive government investment in renewables (research and infrastructure) is needed.

Rex Graham | 16 September 2009  

This is simply laughable! I have read DOZENS of peer-reviewed papers this year alone that refute co2 as the cause of climate change. Religion can be a wonderful thing, but not in science. One would have to have GREAT FAITH to continue to BELIEVE in a theory that has been so roundly DISPROVEN. I would laugh louder but am not so foolish as to think this cooling we are seeing is a good thing. Warming is good, cooling is bad. Study history (Earth has 5 billion years of it!) and learn that there is no "normal" in climatology. Enjoy the Interglacial while it lasts!

Interglacial John | 17 September 2009  

Interglacial John is quite correct to note that the earth's climate has been up and down.

We, and the life support system around us, happen to have evolved within the present Ice Age; all our recorded human history has occurred within the present interglacial period.

Interglacial John must surely know that there has been a long, slow cooling trend on Planet Earth over the last 500 million years, within which there are ups and downs, sure, but the long-term trend has been cooling, despite the sun's increasing energy output over the same time. Why?

This is the period during which all that greenhouse carbon dioxide has been sequestered in the 'fossil fuel' deposits that we are now recycling to the atmosphere with such alacrity.

Then we find that angiosperms spread over the continents, replacing gymnosperms in fits and starts. Angiosperms, flowering plants and trees, tend to sequester carbon by enriching soils, whereas gymnosperms don't. Thus have huge stores of carbon been drawn from the atmosphere and sequestered in ever-enriching soils. We are deforesting the earth's surface, denuding the soils and returning the sequestered carbon to the atmosphere with more of that alacrity for which we are known.

Interglacial John would do well to read William F Ruddiman's 'Plows, Plagues and Petroleum'. He's a peer-reviewed, published climatologist, not a jumped-up geologist. His peers do not reside within the lunar think tanks of either petroleum nor tobacco industries. Nor can those partisan groups refute the differences between the absorbtion spectra of carbon dioxide and methane, and those of oxygen and nitrogen.


David Arthur | 17 September 2009  

A very good overview Tony: fresh information and summary that I haven't seen elsewhere quite like this.

geraldine doogue | 18 September 2009  

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