Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Garnaut's cry from the heart for honesty

Tim Colebatch
The Age, June 1, 2011   

Lies and political slogans have demeaned our climate change politics.

ROSS Garnaut's final report on climate change has three great strengths. It skewers myth after myth spread by those who oppose putting a price on Australia's carbon emissions. It restates his state-of-the-art 2008 blueprint on how the world should share the burden of cutting global emissions in half by 2050.

But perhaps most important of all, he proposes a way to take politics out of Australia's future decisions on climate change by setting up three independent agencies to advise the government on future targets, on future industry assistance measures and to administer the scheme.

After 18 months of sloganeering and lies that have demeaned Australian politics, this offers us a structure for honest, objective decision-making on what is arguably the most important issue of our time.

Garnaut's 2008 report to the Rudd government was a landmark of hardheaded analysis with a vision for the future. At the time, it was attacked from both sides: too realistic for the Greens, too tough for polluting industries, the Coalition, and ultimately Labor.

But gradually the Greens saw its strengths, and Julia Gillard asked Garnaut to revisit the issue. The result is less a report than a book, full of anecdotes, in which the renowned economist and China expert spells out why he became convinced that human activity is changing the climate, and how Australia and the world should tackle it.

It does deliver the blueprint Gillard asked him for (although this is spelt out more clearly in a summary paper issued separately). And, as in 2008, his central advice to the government - and even more, to the Coalition - is that putting a price on carbon is essential if you want to reduce emissions as much as possible, as cheaply as possible.

Why? Because markets work. Put a price on the emissions that are heating up the globe, and you create space for ''lots of people with clever ideas of doing things in ways that reduce emissions''. High-emission production becomes more expensive, but low-emission production becomes relatively cheaper. The investment goes into the latter, and it becomes cheaper still.

A prime example of that innovation has been the extraordinary reach of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales. The cost of solar energy has plunged worldwide thanks to three of the school's graduates who went home to China and set up companies that are now three of the world's four biggest producers of solar cells.

Garnaut sees Australia as ''in the middle of a great struggle'', not only about whether carbon emissions should be taxed, but over whether good policy is to triumph over scaremongering and vested interests. He wants ''the independent centre'' of Australian politics to rise up in support of good policy, and for the principle that Australia should bear its ''fair share'' of the burden of reducing global emissions.

His broad proposals are similar to those he put in 2008. Start with a carbon tax of $20 to $30 a tonne, then, after three years, convert it to an emissions trading scheme in which the market would set the carbon price, and permits could be bought wherever they are cheapest, such as by saving forests in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea.

On the crucial issue of getting global action, his surprising conclusion is that international action is essentially on track. While Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 failed to deliver the binding global agreement we hoped for, they did deliver path-breaking commitments by key countries and a process that ''can be made to work''.

Garnaut devotes two chapters to spelling out why he sees ''concerted unilateral actions'' by all countries as a workable path to turning climate change around. His key points are that:
■ China has pledged to reduce its emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 to a bit over half its 2005 levels. To do so, it is closing its dirtiest power stations, vastly expanding its forests, building nuclear, wind and solar power stations, a national network of very fast trains, and so on.
■ US President Barack Obama has pledged to cut US emissions in 2020 to 17 per cent below 2005 levels. He lost his battle to set a carbon price, but is using regulatory powers to block new coal-fired stations, close the dirtiest old ones and require big gains in vehicle fuel efficiency. And next January, California (Cate Blanchett's other home) will become the 11th US state with emissions trading.
■Cancun and Copenhagen ended with non-binding pledges from all key emitters, and agreement for ongoing international peer reviews of how each country is meeting its targets.
Garnaut sees the global scene as a glass half-full. The Productivity Commission yesterday gave the government a separate report on the same issue, as yet unreleased. It is more sceptical as to whether the pledges will be delivered - if a Republican wins next year's US presidential election, for example, all bets are off.

Sadly, the same is true here. While Labor and the Coalition have pledged to cut Australia's emissions in 2020 to 5 per cent below 2000 levels, officials estimate that on current policies, we will end up 24 per cent above them. Garnaut's report is a cry from the heart to Labor and the Coalition alike: don't let this great country turn its back on the great challenge of our time.

Tim Colebatch is The Age's economics editor.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink

Exclusive: Record rise, despite recession, means 2C target almost out of reach

Fiona Harvey,  Environment correspondent, 

guardian.co.uk, Sunday 29 May 2011

Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.

"I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions," Birol told the Guardian. "It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say."

Professor Lord Stern of the London School of Economics, the author of the influential Stern Report into the economics of climate change for the Treasury in 2006, warned that if the pattern continued, the results would be dire. "These figures indicate that [emissions] are now close to being back on a 'business as usual' path. According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] projections, such a path ... would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100," he said.

"Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce."

Birol said disaster could yet be averted, if governments heed the warning. "If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding," he said.

The IEA has calculated that if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32Gt by 2020. If this year's emissions rise by as much as they did in 2010, that limit will be exceeded nine years ahead of schedule, making it all but impossible to hold warming to a manageable degree.

Emissions from energy fell slightly between 2008 and 2009, from 29.3Gt to 29Gt, due to the financial crisis. A small rise was predicted for 2010 as economies recovered, but the scale of the increase has shocked the IEA. "I was expecting a rebound, but not such a strong one," said Birol, who is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost experts on emissions.

John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said time was running out. "This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world's last remaining reserves of fossil fuels – even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don't put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them."

Most of the rise – about three-quarters – has come from developing countries, as rapidly emerging economies have weathered the financial crisis and the recession that has gripped most of the developed world.

But he added that, while the emissions data was bad enough news, there were other factors that made it even less likely that the world would meet its greenhouse gas targets.

• About 80% of the power stations likely to be in use in 2020 are either already built or under construction, the IEA found. Most of these are fossil fuel power stations unlikely to be taken out of service early, so they will continue to pour out carbon – possibly into the mid-century. The emissions from these stations amount to about 11.2Gt, out of a total of 13.7Gt from the electricity sector. These "locked-in" emissions mean savings must be found elsewhere.

"It means the room for manoeuvre is shrinking," warned Birol.

• Another factor that suggests emissions will continue their climb is the crisis in the nuclear power industry. Following the tsunami damage at Fukushima, Japan and Germany have called a halt to their reactor programmes, and other countries are reconsidering nuclear power.

"People may not like nuclear, but it is one of the major technologies for generating electricity without carbon dioxide," said Birol. The gap left by scaling back the world's nuclear ambitions is unlikely to be filled entirely by renewable energy, meaning an increased reliance on fossil fuels.

• Added to that, the United Nations-led negotiations on a new global treaty on climate change have stalled. "The significance of climate change in international policy debates is much less pronounced than it was a few years ago," said Birol.

He urged governments to take action urgently. "This should be a wake-up call. A chance [of staying below 2 degrees] would be if we had a legally binding international agreement or major moves on clean energy technologies, energy efficiency and other technologies."

Governments are to meet next week in Bonn for the next round of the UN talks, but little progress is expected.

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said the global emissions figures showed that the link between rising GDP and rising emissions had not been broken. "The only people who will be surprised by this are people who have not been reading the situation properly," he said.

Forthcoming research led by Sir David will show the west has only managed to reduce emissions by relying on imports from countries such as China.

Another telling message from the IEA's estimates is the relatively small effect that the recession – the worst since the 1930s – had on emissions. Initially, the agency had hoped the resulting reduction in emissions could be maintained, helping to give the world a "breathing space" and set countries on a low-carbon path. The new estimates suggest that opportunity may have been missed.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jim Hansen"s letter to the NZ PM

From Hot Topic

Before he left New Zealand, Jim Hansen wrote an open letter to prime minister John Key -

Dear Prime Minister Key,

Encouraged by youth of New Zealand, especially members of the organization 350.org, I write this open letter to inform you of recent advances in understanding of climate change, consequences for young people and nature, and implications for government policies.

I recognize that New Zealanders, blessed with a land of rare beauty, are deeply concerned about threats to their environment. Also New Zealand contributes relatively little to carbon emissions that drive climate change. Per capita fossil fuel emissions from New Zealand are just over 2 tons of carbon per year, while in my country fossil fuel carbon emissions are about 5 tons per person.

However, we are all on the same boat. New Zealand youth, future generations, and all species in your country will be affected by global climate change, as will people and species in all nations.

New Zealand's actions affecting climate change are important. Your leadership in helping the public understand the facts and the merits of actions to ameliorate climate change will be important, as will New Zealand's voice in support of effective international actions.

The fact is that we, the older generation, are on the verge of handing young people a dynamically changing climate out of their control, with major consequences for humanity and nature. A path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future is still possible, but not if business-as-usual continues.

The state of Earth's climate is summarized in the attached paper [The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future, which can be found here],whose authorship includes leading world scientists in relevant fields. The bottom line is that Earth is out of energy balance, more energy coming in than going out. Thus more climate change is "in the pipeline".

Failure to address emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of human-made climate change, will produce increased regional climate extremes, as seen in Australia during the past few years. But young people, quite appropriately, are concerned especially that continued emissions will drive the climate system past tipping points with irreversible consequences during their lifetimes.

Shifting of climate zones accompanying business-as-usual emissions are expected to commit at least 20 percent of the species on our planet to extermination – possibly 40 percent or more. Extermination of species would be irreversible, leaving a more desolate planet for young people. They will also have large effects on New Zealand's principal export industry, agriculture.

Sea level rise is a second irreversible consequence of global warming. Some sea level rise is now inevitable, but with phase down of fossil fuel use it may be kept to a level measured in a few tens of centimeters. Business-as-usual is expected to cause sea level rise exceeding a meter this century and to set ice sheet disintegration in motion guaranteeing multi-meter sea level rise.

Prompt actions are needed to avoid these large effects. Phase-out of coal emissions by 2030 is the principal requirement. Also unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. These conditions, plus improved agricultural practices and reforestation of lands that are not effective for food production, could stabilize the climate.

I have had the opportunity while in your country to meet your science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and your climate change ministers, Hon Nick Smith and Hon Tim Groser, and discussed these issues with them. If I can be of any help with the science of climate change I am very willing to assist your government. Implications for New Zealand are clear.

First, New Zealand should leave the massive deposits of lignite coal in the ground, instead developing its natural bounty of renewable energies and energy efficiency. If, instead, development of such coal resources proceeds, New Zealand's portion of resulting species extermination estimated by biological experts would be well over 1000 species. Most New Zealanders, I suspect, would not want to make such 'contributions' to global change.

Second, New Zealand should lend its voice to the cause of moving the global community onto a path leading to a healthy, natural, prosperous future. That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically, with the funds distributed uniformly to citizens, thus moving the world toward the carbon-free energies of the future.

Prime Minister Key, the youth of New Zealand are asking you to consider their concerns and exercise your leadership on behalf of their future, indeed on behalf of humankind and nature.

With all best wishes,

James E. Hansen,
Adjunct Professor,
Columbia University Earth Institute

The letter was copied to the PM's science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, Nick Smith and Tim Groser.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Climate inertia shows ugly side of the Australian character

Ross Gittins
The Age, May 25, 2011   

It's a sore test of faith when people put power bills before their children's future.

Like most people, I'm an instinctive optimist. In any case, I see no margin in pessimism. If you concluded the world was irredeemably wicked, or destined for certain destruction, what would be left but to curl up and die? Since we can never be certain the end is nigh, much better to keep living and keep plugging away for a better world.

I confess, however, I've needed all my optimistic instincts to avoid despair over the terrible hash we're making of the need to take effective action against global warming. We're showing everything that's unattractive about the Australian character.

We pride ourselves that Aussies are good in a crisis, but until the walls start falling in on us we couldn't reach agreement to shut the door against the cold.

This week's report from the Climate Commission - established to provide expert advice on the science of climate change and its effects on Australia - tells us nothing we didn't already know, but everything we've lost sight of in our efforts to advance our personal interests at the expense of the nation's.

Its 70 pages boil down to four propositions we'd rather not think about. First, there is no doubt the climate is changing. The evidence is clear. The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps, and sea levels are rising. Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.

Second, we are already seeing the social, economic and environmental effects of a changing climate. In the past 50 years, the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwave-associated deaths, as well as extreme bushfires.

Sea level has risen by 20 centimetres globally since the late 1800s, affecting many coastal communities. Another 20-centimetre increase by 2050 is likely, on present projections, which would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.

Third, these changes are triggered by human activities - particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation - which are increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide the most important of these gases.

Fourth, this is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience. Without strong and rapid action, there is a significant risk that climate change will undermine society's prosperity, health, stability and way of life.

That scientists still need to repeat these long-established truths is a measure of how much we've allowed short-sighted and selfish concerns to distract us from the need to respond to a clear and present danger.

In this we haven't been well served by our leaders. The Labor government's decline dates from Kevin Rudd's loss of nerve following the defeat of his carbon pollution reduction scheme in the Senate in late 2009, following the success of the Coalition's climate-change deniers in overthrowing Malcolm Turnbull and replacing him with a man whose record showed him willing to take whatever position on climate change he thought would advance his career.

Had Rudd the courage of his professed convictions, he would have taken the question to a double-dissolution election, fighting in defence of his ''great big new tax on everything''. 

Instead he dithered, eventually yielding to pressure from those in his party - including Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan - wanting to put the government's survival ahead of its duty.

Opposition leaders play a vital role in a democracy and are given considerable licence. They're not expected to speak the unvarnished truth. Dishonest scare campaigns have long been used by both sides.

I don't like using the L-word, but Tony Abbott is setting new lows in the lightness with which he plays with the truth. He blatantly works both sides of the street, nodding happily in the company of climate-change deniers, but in more intellectually respectable company professing belief in human-caused global warming, his commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 and the efficacy of his no-offence policies to achieve it.

He grossly exaggerates the costs involved in a carbon tax, telling business audiences they will have to pay the lot and be destroyed by it, while telling the punters business will pass all the costs on to them. He forgets to mention that most of the proceeds from the tax will be returned as compensation.

He repeats the half-truth that nothing we could do by ourselves would reduce global emissions, while failing to correct the punters' ignorant belief that Australia is the only country contemplating action. Last week's news that Britain's Conservative-led coalition government has pledged to cut emissions by half within 15 years is ignored. Economists call this mentality ''free-riding''; the old Australian word for it is ''bludging''.

But it's far too easy to blame our failure to face up to climate change just on our hopeless politicians. Our increasingly partisan media have failed to hold Abbott to account over his duplicity. Many have sought to increase circulation or ratings by joining in the fearmongering and denial. The media's love of controversy has led it to give doubters of the science of climate change a credibility they don't deserve against the overwhelming weight of science.

Australians are proud of their inbuilt bulldust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense politicians, business people and media personalities serve up to them.

The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn't possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.

Ross Gittins is a Herald senior columnist.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sea-level fright as climate report goes public

The Age, May 23, 2011   

Climate Commission report, The Critical Decade: Climate science, risks and responses can be downloaded here

Global warming is real, man made, and could cause the world's sea level to rise a metre by the end of the century, much higher than previously thought, according to the federal government's Climate Commission.

Melbourne faces extreme and more frequent flooding, while higher sea levels are already "bad news" for fragile areas including Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, says Commissioner Will Steffen.

It also says this year's Queensland and Victorian flooding ''raised the question of a possible link between the floods and human-induced climate change''.

"A plausible estimate of the amount of sea-level rise by 2100 compared to 2000 is 0.5 to one metre," the report says.

''While a sea-level rise of 0.5 metre … may not seem like a matter for much concern, such modest levels of sea-level rise can lead to unexpectedly large increases in the frequency of extreme high sea-level events,'' it said.

The sea-level forecast is higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's top range of 0.18m to 0.76m.

Commissioner Will Steffen, a Canberra-based climate scientist, made the assessment after surveying the existing literature and speaking to experts.

"Some people may take issue with that - but that's my judgment," Professor Steffen said ahead of the report's release at Parliament House.

The report states that even a rise of 0.5m could lead to an increase in extreme flooding events for coastal areas of Sydney and Melbourne "by factors of 1000 or 10,000 for some locations".

The global sea level has risen by about 20cm since the 1880s.

But the rises aren't uniform - they vary according to ocean currents and the local conditions on the land.

In Australia, sea levels are rising fastest on the northern coastline.

Around Arnhem Land it's rising by more than seven millimetres a year while the global average is 3.2mm.

Prof Steffen notes that's bad news for Kakadu.

"It is low-lying and already we're seeing some salt water intrusion into some of the fresh water wetlands," he said.

When it comes to damage to the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian National University academic argues the report contains "solid data that says we are indeed starting to see some of these affects on calcifying organisms".

The commission, established by Labor to spruik the case for tackling dangerous climate change, is also calling for a fresh approach to reducing carbon emissions.

It suggests that, rather than focusing on interim targets based on percentage cuts, governments should commit to emitting no more than an agreed carbon dioxide "budget" by 2050.
This so-called budget approach would allow greater flexibility and encourage investment in the most-effective technologies rather than quick-fix solutions.

Prof Steffen said he hoped the report would refocus the political debate on the risks posed by climate change.

"The costs of not doing something about climate change will almost surely be far, far greater than the costs of doing something about it," he said.

When it comes to taking action, the report suggests focusing on limiting emissions to an agreed global budget.

"The strategic challenge (then) changes from whether the 2020 target is a five per cent, 25 per cent or 40 per cent reduction against a particular baseline to how do we implement the transition to a low- or no-carbon economy by 2050 with the least economic and social cost while staying within the budget," the report states.

For humanity to have a 75 per cent chance of limiting temperature rises to two degrees Celsius it would need to emit no more than one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2000 to 2050.

Some 30 per cent of that budget has already been spent.

The report acknowledges the difficulty with this approach would be allocating the global budget to individual countries.

But Prof Steffen points out the new method "really focuses attention on the endgame which is to decarbonise economies by the middle of the century".

The report argues this would encourage investment decisions to be taken from a long-term perspective.