Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Caution at what cost?

Australia can be a leader in emissions reduction instead of waiting for a global agreement.

THE SUPPLEMENTARY draft report released last Friday by Professor Ross Garnaut suggests that the guiding principle for our emissions reduction targets and timetable is the feasibility of an international agreement. This is not an appropriate framework for our actions in the face of Australia's particular vulnerability to the impact of climate change.

Consider the current status of international negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol requires that the parties to the protocol reduce their aggregate emissions over 2008-2012 by at least 5% below 1990 levels. Any assessment of our progress depends on the standards of success applied. Compared with how large our emissions might have been without Kyoto, we have certainly made progress. But then again, since 1990 the emissions of the 23 most industrialised countries have grown by 12.1%.

If 10 industrialised countries in transition to market economies are included, aggregate emissions decreased by 4.9% during the same period. Meanwhile, developing countries have significantly added to global greenhouse gas emissions, with China's emissions exceeding the United States' by 7% in 2006 and 14% in 2007.

What stabilisation level would prevent what has become commonly known as "dangerous" change? That depends on who you are. Dangerous means different things to different countries. For Australia, stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 parts per million — adopted as a goal by Garnaut — would result in only a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to two degrees.

Can we afford this each way bet? As Garnaut has stated, Australia is one of the most vulnerable nations in the developed world.

At an average global warming of two degrees, Australia will experience more heatwaves, fires and droughts, and probably more floods, landslides and severe storms. Water security and biodiversity problems will intensify, and our coastal infrastructure will be at risk. Potential losses in yield and quality from our agricultural industry will have wide-ranging impacts.

Meanwhile, global emissions appear to be growing at 2 ppm per year — a faster rate than any of the emissions scenarios considered in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. And global mean temperature and sea levels are rising at a rate in the upper range of, or above, that projected in those scenarios.

A choice between focusing on reaching a binding international agreement and opening it up to alternative or complementary strategies is not value free or politically neutral. Hence, a choice cannot be made under the guise of objectivity. One's own values are necessarily implicated. Moreover, the choice has social and political consequences.

In these circumstances, politics are necessary and unavoidable. The implication is that each of us might make our own values explicit. My recommendation is a value commitment to the common interest of the Australian community. So, for example, Garnaut's ultimate objective of stabilisation at 450 ppm should be justified by a larger value commitment to the sustainability of ecosystems and the Australian communities they support. By this standard, an objective of 450 ppm fails.

How can we value the common interest? We can value the tourism industry on the Great Barrier Reef, our low-lying coastal infrastructure, our investments in desalination. But how do we value food self-sufficiency in an unstable world, our unique Alpine flora and fauna, or the loss of our history in severe bushfires? While we can attempt to place a price on taking action, putting a price on our failure to act is an enormously challenging task. In this context, we cannot possibly set a target for some point in the future and know we got it right.

We need to live with this uncertainty. We know already that we are stuck with the wrong set of assets — traditional coal and gas-fired power plants, cities that are planned around cars, agriculture that can deal with drought as long as the rain returns after the El Nino ends.

It will take time, resources, and new technologies to restructure our society and economy. As we do, we have to balance a short-term goal of emissions reduction with a long-term goal of decarbonisation, and do so in a way that is equitable.

So what should we do? We should focus on strategies to bring about substantial, early reductions in emissions. This must be done for two reasons.

Firstly, it exhibits strong international leadership. Garnaut is correct that it is unlikely that all the world's major states will simultaneously agree to a serious program to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases.

But progress is possible outside mandatory, legally binding international agreements by harvesting experience from voluntary actions taken by nations in a decentralised international system.

Internationally renowned climate change expert Stephen Schneider contended that "volunteerism doesn't work. It's about as effective as voluntary speed limits. No cops, no judges: road carnage. No rules, no fines: greenhouse gases." But we know with confidence that international agreements enforced by trade or financial or other severe sanctions are not yet politically feasible. Until they are, it would be prudent to exploit every opportunity to improve upon voluntary alternatives. Voluntary and mandatory initiatives are not mutually exclusive.

Second, we should not underestimate the potential benefits of early adopter status. Decarbonisation of our economy will require a bold vision. Substantial economic and employment opportunities are likely in education and innovation, industry and regional development, and new markets and services.

It is important that Australia be prepared to take advantage of the potential benefits. To achieve these benefits, strong incentives must be in place early — a soft start to an emissions reduction scheme will not prompt the necessary action. It is time to put the carrot in front of the donkey.

Professor Amanda Lynch is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at Monash University, and head of the Monash climate program. She is writing a book on adaptive governance for climate change.

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