Monday, 30 November 2009

Government fiddles around the edges while Australia burns
November 27, 2009

In 1992, in response to the threat of global warming, the governments of the world agreed to "stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system".

Recently, the G8 nations agreed to an objective of limiting global warming to only two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. The best estimate of what is needed to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding two degrees of global warming is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases. To do that, global emissions must peak before 2015 and fall by 50 per cent to 85 per cent by 2050.

How can global emission reductions be distributed between different countries? A fair way of distributing a limited resource among a group of people is to give everyone an equal share. Children understand that this is a fair approach, even if politicians don't.

All governments in the world agreed in 1992 to the underlying principle that "developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change". Per person emissions of greenhouse gases in developed countries are four times higher than in developing countries. Australia has the highest emissions of carbon dioxide per person in the world, six times higher than the average for developing countries and even higher than the US.

For Australia, a fair share of the global emissions reduction needed to stabilise long-lived greenhouse gas concentrations at about 450 ppm would be 25 per cent to 40 per cent emissions reductions by 2020 and 90 per cent to 97 per cent reductions by 2050. The Federal Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) is an ambitious attempt to introduce an emissions trading scheme as a market-based approach.

Such a scheme has the potential to introduce short-term and long-term targets for emissions reductions, such as 25 per cent emissions reduction by 2020 and 90 per cent emissions reduction by 2050. However, such a scheme can only be effective if it is comprehensive in including all emission sources, such as transport and agriculture, and if there is minimal compensation for the highest emitters. The principle of "the polluter pays" seems to have been reversed in the proposed CPRS, as the biggest emitters are likely to receive the largest financial hand-outs.

The recent negotiations between the Government and the Liberal Party have led to some improvements to the CPRS. The expansion of terrestrial carbon offsets is likely to drive profound improvements to the way we farm in Australia and how we manage our land. It will put a price on carbon and create new market opportunities to protect and restore degraded land at an almost unimaginable scale. Of course, the additional compensation to the worst emitters also puts more costs on to all taxpayers.

Australian governments' policies on population growth, encouraging immigration and an increasing birth rate, also make it more difficult to reduce emissions. This encouragement for increasing population in Australia is completely at odds with the claimed aims of tackling climate change. Every additional person in Australia is likely to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the highest per person rate in the world, making the problem much worse.

The Victorian Government's ambitious green paper on climate change includes discussion of many important actions to respond to climate change through both adaptation and emissions reduction. But the Government appears unwilling or unable to accept that an urgent whole-of-government approach is needed, with limits on population growth, a strategy to phase out brown coal power stations, huge investment in low-carbon energy sources and public transport, and regulations requiring dramatic improvement in energy efficiency.

The CPRS and its market-based mechanisms need to be complemented by regulations that overcome the likely market failures over the coming decade. Victoria has benefited from cheap energy from brown coal, which is the worst energy source in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced. The sooner that electricity production from brown coal is phased out, the better off the world will be.

If government is to deal seriously with climate change, it should separate quality of life and economic growth from growth of greenhouse gas emissions by moving rapidly to zero-carbon energy sources. There are many opportunities for new green jobs and green industries.

Australia has tremendous resources of energy from a wide range of renewable sources, with more total solar energy input received by Australia than any other country in the world, and more potential sources of wind energy, wave power and geothermal power per person than any other country.

Good government requires urgent and substantial action to rapidly transform to a low-carbon, sustainable society. Delaying a decision is to make climate change worse, and more difficult and more costly to combat. History will judge our governments' responses. So far, they have been inadequate.

David Karoly is a professor in the school of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne and played a key role in a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.