Thursday, September 18, 2008

Australia must do better than Garnaut's vision

By Don Henry

ABC Opinion Online, Posted Thu Sep 18, 2008 3:38pm AEST

From the top of famous Ubirr Rock, the Kakadu wetlands sparkle in the late afternoon light. Right now the wetlands are alive with millions and millions of honking magpie geese, ducks and egrets.

ACF's conservation efforts have brought me to Kakadu straight after the release of Professor Ross Garnaut's supplementary draft report.

It's a bittersweet experience for me. Sweet because Kakadu looks magnificent and there are thousands of Australian and international tourists enjoying it - evidence of a vibrant tourism industry that's generating income and jobs for the Top End. Bitter because if the Australian Government adopts and enacts one of the scenarios canvassed by Prof Garnaut, much of this will be destroyed by climate change.

Prof Garnaut looks at two possible trajectories for global emissions and Australia's contribution to international action. The first one would see the world aiming to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million (ppm). For Australia to play its part in achieving this scenario he recommends we commit to a 10 per cent cut in our emissions by 2020.

In his speech launching the report Prof Garnaut "reluctantly" recommended Australia aim for this low target, saying he was not confident the rest of the world would agree to anything stronger.

The world's top climate scientists say if we allow carbon concentrations to reach 550 parts per million temperatures could rise by more than three degrees.

Prof Garnaut concedes this would mean devastation for some of Australia's most precious places. "I have to say the odds are not great for the Great Barrier Reef or the economic base of the Murray-Darling," he said at the launch of the report.

The other scenario Prof Garnaut examines is 450 parts per million with Australia's contribution to global action being a cut in emissions of 25 per cent by 2020.

Scientists say this would lead to global warming of more than two degrees.

Prof Garnaut knows this is the better option for Australia than three degrees plus. Indeed, he says "a global objective of 450 ppm, with discussion of transition to 400 ppm once the 450 ppm goal is being approached with confidence, would better suit Australian interests".

He even "recommends" Australia goes for 450 ppm - "The Review recommends that Australia commit itself to a goal of stabilising emissions at 450 ppm, and express its willingness to play its proportionate part in an effective global agreement to achieve this outcome" - but then says "international agreement on a global goal of 450 ppm is not possible at this time".

The crucial December 2009 Copenhagen negotiations for a new global climate agreement are probably the world's best and last chance to avoid dangerous climate change. Prof Garnaut is pessimistic about their prospects of success. I am not.

I simply point to two things. First, there is now overwhelming and growing public support for strong action to avoid dangerous climate change in most countries around the world, Australia included. Second, the advice from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that developed countries as a group will need to reduce their emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020 is already on the table of the negotiations.

Our government needs to hear loud and clear from Australians that it is absolutely unacceptable for Australia to go in to bat for targets that would condemn Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, that would cripple our grazing and agricultural industries and hand on more severe and frequent droughts and extreme bushfire seasons to our children. Australians have not given our government permission to put up the white flag on these national icons.

We can and must do better than this. In the crucial international climate negotiations the Australian Government should be batting for a future free from dangerous climate change for our kids.

Australian Conservation Foundation executive director Don Henry writes from Kakadu National Park.

Tags: environment, climate-change, pollution, wetlands, australia

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