ALAN PEARS. Beyond the Climate Chaos

Mar 11, 2019

 It seems our politicians live on a different planet from the rest of us.

The government’s climate position is untenable and morally irresponsible, while the opposition’s is still marginal. Humanity and the planet are in serious trouble. Strong action is economically sensible, practical and morally responsible.

The government’s attempt at dodgy climate accounting and confusing people on climate policy has not gone well. So it has now turned to the next page of the political games textbook: deliberate confusion, earnest repetition and bluster, and lots of superficially plausible numbers (keeping in mind that most Australians are not very numerate). Aggressively failing to answer questions, misusing data or answering questions other than those asked by interviewers are classic obfuscation techniques now being used. The aim is to make climate ‘too hard’, so people focus on other issues.

On top of this, they have introduced the fear factor by quoting economic modelling that suggests stronger emission reductions would seriously damage the economy. This modelling was done by Brian Fisher, former head of ABARE, the government modelling agency that led attacks from the early 1990s on climate action by suggesting ‘scary’ economic impacts and high carbon prices (See Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher pp60-64 and Maria Taylor’s ANU PhD thesis and book What Australia Knew and Buried).Taylor states (p.115 of her PhD) ‘ABARE’s Director Brian Fisher emerged during the 1990s as a reliable sceptic voice in regard to economics and the cost of response activities.’ Sound familiar?

In contrast, numerous studies show that large emission reductions are economically and practically feasible (e.g. here and here  and other sources below).

Unfortunately for the Coalition, Australians have become sceptical of economic modelling – for good reason. The outcomes of economic modelling are very sensitive to many assumptions and how they are presented (see Richard Denniss’ Econobabble). It will be interesting to see some peer review of the Coalition’s modelling.

Some critics are becoming bogged down in detailed debates about complex aspects of targets, carryovers, accuracy of projections, pumped hydro and coal power stations and other complexities. This is important, but complexity is just what the Coalition wants. And it leaves space for PM Morrison to manage the tensions within the party.

Labor is not helping, by failing to reject misuse of past ‘carryovers’ from earlier Kyoto periods. There are internal tensions over this position, and maybe they’ll clear the air when they have their own economic modelling, and strategically time clarification to maximise the public sense of relief. This is a bit risky, as it gives the Coalition space to minimise the difference between parties, so people focus on other issues.

How to summarise the situation in less than a book? Here goes.

The Coalition’s climate target is effectively a reduction of about 12% below the (very high) 2005 level of emissions, after including ‘carryover abatement’, which reduces it from the headline 26% reduction for the Paris commitment. For comparison, Labor’s target is roughly a 33- 45% reduction, depending on whether they make use of carryover credits.

It’s worth looking at the fundamentals. Our Earth’s current temperature increase is driven by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This, in turn, is driven by the net outcome of factors such as emissions, decay of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and absorption of the gases by natural and human systems. The laws of physics are playing out as increasing amounts of energy that should have escaped from earth to space are re-radiated back to earth, driving up its equilibrium temperature and energising our atmosphere.

Scientists have estimated cumulative ‘carbon budgets’ for the net amounts of greenhouse gases that can be released by 2100 with ‘acceptable risk’ of raising global temperature by more than 1.5 or 2oC above pre-industrial levels.

The Climate Change Authority’s report used a carbon budget-based approach, then converted this to a trajectory of annual emissions that would meet the cumulative budget. CCA estimated that Australia’s remaining carbon budget for the period 2026 to 2050 would be 3411 Mt CO2e if its 2025 target is met. That is just 6.2 years of emissions at the 2018 level. Since we are unlikely to meet CCA’s 2025 target, our 2026 to2050 budget is actually smaller.

CCA proposed a 30% reduction in annual emissions below the 2000 level by 2025 – a 36% reduction from the government’s 2005 base year. It also proposed a reduction of 40-60% below 2000 levels by 2030 (45-65% below 2005 emissions). CCA noted that these targets are consistent with climate science, comparable to targets of similar countries, and economically responsible.

The Australia Institute (TAI) recently published a thorough discussion of the situation, using various approaches to evaluate government and opposition policies. According to TAI, at present rates of emissions, Australia would use up its share of IPCC’s estimated global carbon budget to 2100 within the next few years. TAI concluded that the Australian Government’s 26-28% target is inadequate according to any recognised principle-based approach. They also found:

‘The Opposition’s target lies at the lower end of the range suggested by pure population-based approaches and outside of the range implied by cost sharing approaches.’

Both CCA and TAI recognise that purchase of some international carbon permits may be part of Australia’s climate response.

A very useful interactive tool at Paris Equity Check shows that if all countries adopted the same emission reduction targets as Australia, the global temperature rise by 2100 would be 4.4oC. Australia needs to cut its 2030 emissions by around two-thirds from a 2005 reference year, and move beyond zero emissions by around 2060 to achieve its share of a carbon budget to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 to 2oC.

This sample of research and analysis consistently shows that the government’s 2030 26% reduction commitment is nowhere near what climate science and globally responsible action requires. Labor’s 45% commitment is at the weak end of what’s needed – if they reject use of Kyoto carryover credits. Even so, TAI points out that the Labor scenario would require carbon neutrality by 2040 to remain within our share of the global carbon budget.

So we should ignore the hubris. The government’s climate position is untenable and morally irresponsible, while the opposition’s is still marginal. Humanity and the planet are in serious trouble. Strong action is economically sensible, practical and morally responsible.

Alan Pears AM has worked on clean energy and climate policy for several decades. His work spans all sectors of the economy, ranging from practical site-level projects to program development and implementation, policy analysis and education.

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