Tuesday, May 01, 2007

John Howard’s climate policy: Que sera, sera

When the federal opposition announced a target last week of reducing Australia’s emissions by 60% by 2050, John Howard described it as “crazy”:

"You've got this ridiculous situation where the Greens are advocating an 80 per cent cut by 2050, the Labor Party is only slightly less radical at 60 per cent by 2050," Mr Howard told ABC radio.

"Neither the Greens or the Labor Party has any idea of what that will do to jobs. I think it is crazy and irresponsible of any political party in this country to commit to a target when you don't know the impact of the target."
The target is based on the scientific reality (or at least our best current understanding of it) that 60% is the absolute minimum emission reduction required by 2050 in order to stabilise the concentration of carbon dioxide at a level which minimises the risk of severe climate impacts:

Although the pursuit of emissions reductions of 60% or more cannot be translated directly into a specific stabilisation target, this emissions target does have its origins in the analysis of different stabilisation pathways, particularly the 550 ppmv stabilisation target which… is roughly the upper limit for atmospheric GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations that avoid DAI [dangerous adverse impacts]…

Despite the precedence for the use of 550 ppmv as benchmark for estimating GHG emission reductions necessary to avoid DAI, it is clear from the range of proposed thresholds… that even this threshold is considered too high by some experts. Carbon dioxide and CO2e concentration thresholds well below 550 ppmv frequently have been recommended…

…the goal of Annex I [developed country] emissions reductions of 60% by 2050 may be considered a minimum estimate of the effort needed to achieve stabilisation to avoid DAI.
(CSIRO, pdf here [see pages 17-18], my emphasis).

And it’s not dissimilar to the target suggested by the federal government’s own Chief Scientist three years ago:
Fresh from defending himself against allegations of a conflict of interest [over his dual roles as Australia’s Chief Scientist and chief technologist for mining company Rio Tinto], the Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham, said Australia must halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Talk of such a target by the Federal Government's most senior scientific authority is in stark contrast to the recently released white paper on energy policy which broadly supported Australia's continuing use of fossil fuels, a major source of man-made greenhouse gases.

Dr Batterham said he supported the Federal Government's decision not to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change because the reductions it set were not high enough.

"I'm talking about enormous reductions - 80 per cent by the end of the century," Dr Batterham said. "Fifty per cent by 2050, I think, is realistic."
Of course, it's not true that we have no idea of the economic impact of these proposed targets (more on that tomorrow). But the more important point is this: any target has costs and benefits. The costs are obvious and are what the government has focussed on: higher energy prices and resulting lower profits and job losses in fossil fuel industries. The benefits are more dispersed: jobs and earnings in renewable energy, indirect benefits of policies to reduce energy waste (better energy efficiency, more economically efficient transport, and reduced air pollution), credibility in the global debate on climate change and, the biggie, reduced risk and severity of adverse climate change.

If you don’t set a formal target, you’re simply setting a target by default: a target of emissions increases. This unstated target has costs as much as a stated target does. If setting a target based on an incomplete knowledge of all the costs and benefits – a ‘best guess’ target – is irresponsible, how much more irresponsible is not setting a target at all – just letting whatever may happen happen? Is that any way to decide policy?


laura said...

two thumbs up for this post.

southfield_2001 said...

The solution lies, to a significant extent, in nuclear power but you can't get that one by most environmentalists, either.
Reduction targets are useful but they have to be in context with the idea that people need jobs and money. It's intelligent to set reasonable targets that take into account the fact we don't want to spark a worldwide depression that would make the '30s seem like a trip down Easy Street.
Also, both in Canada and Australia we face the problem that we could reduce our emissions to zero and it would have little effect if countries like the US, China and India don't follow suit.

Wadard said...

southfield, that argument you use is a total furphy. Apart from the fact that we have a moral and practical obligation to act simply because it doesn't matter where the coal is burnt it comes back to our fragile land via climate change, Australia supplies 30% of the world's coal emissions - so we are capable of withholding supply and creating a very viable market in renewable energy. And I believe that if we did sign something like Kyoto, for example, it would put a lot of pressure on the States to to the same.

It's going to look pretty bloody embarrassing wearing the title of the last developed country to sign up to kyoto.