Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Soft option on climate means opting for defeat

An emissions cut of only 10% by 2020 will not prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

THE Howard government's oft-repeated justification for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol was that there was no point in Australia taking action on climate change while the world's industrial giants remained intent on doing nothing. So when, only hours after being sworn in as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd announced Australia's ratification of the protocol it was understood to mean that the Howard excuse had been officially consigned to history. Australia now accepted that it had to play an active part in responding to the greatest environmental crisis of our time, and would not wait until it was eventually dragged along by others with minimal cost to itself. There had been a fundamental shift in policy — or so it seemed.

Ten months later, rumours of the demise of the Howard excuse appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Last week the Government's chief adviser on climate change policy, Professor Ross Garnaut, recommended that Australia set itself modest targets for reducing carbon emissions, aiming for a 10% cut below 2000 levels by 2020. His reason? That he had "reluctantly concluded that a more ambitious international agreement is not possible at this stage". The Rudd Government has yet to declare whether it will be guided by Professor Garnaut's latest round of advice, but has been conspicuously silent about the reintroduction into the climate change debate of the line of argument favoured by its defeated predecessor.

The most likely effect of a 10% cut would be to contribute to the stabilisation of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million (ppm), a level at which, according to the great majority of climate scientists, the worst effects of climate change would be unavoidable. There would be a high probability of mass species extinction and of the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet. And, to bring the matter home, Professor Garnaut conceded: "I have to say that the odds are not great for the Barrier Reef or for the economic base of the communities of the Murray-Darling if the world gets no further than 550 ppm."

Industry lobbies and politicians may have felt relieved that Professor Garnaut is no longer asking Australians to make an onerous sacrifice, but climate scientists have no illusions about the consequences of atmospheric carbon dioxide stabilising at 550 ppm. As The Age reported this week, three distinguished Australian scientists, all members of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have condemned the strategy of accepting what is politically palatable rather than campaigning strongly in international forums for what is necessary. Professor Amanda Lynch, of Monash University, Professor David Karoly, of the University of Melbourne, and Dr Bill Hare, an Australian at the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany, all argue that Australia should be aiming for a cut in greenhouse emissions of between 25% and 40% by 2020. Their view is partly a matter of hard science — Australia is the developed country expected to be worst affected by climate change — but partly also a matter of concern for Australia's international standing, which will be diminished if the hitherto aggressive rhetoric on climate change is not ultimately reflected in policy.

The temptation to take a soft option on climate change is as obvious as it is insidious. Politicians enjoy basking in the sort of adulation that Mr Rudd and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong received at the Bali conference last year, but baulk at having to devise policies that will, among other things, make life harder for voters. The Opposition has taken a frankly populist line on climate change, and the Government, in its green paper responding to Professor Garnaut's earlier draft report, has clearly assessed his emissions-trading proposals as much by the political cost of implementing them as by the environmental cost of not doing so.

Some areas of policymaking, however, require more than an opportunist eye on the next election. A government that is seriously committed to meeting the challenges of climate change will heed informed scientific opinion on acceptable levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and seek to explain to voters why it is necessary to curb emissions accordingly. It would lobby strongly in international forums to help forge the agreement that is now lacking, rather than acquiescing in disagreement. It would be a government that is willing to lead. Unfortunately, that prospect seems to have become all too intimidating for the Rudd Government and its climate change adviser.

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