Ross Gittins has an interesting look at the Garnaut report in the SMH - Time to aim high on climate change.
The latest report on climate change by the economics professor Ross Garnaut is the most disheartening government report I've read. It tells us how hugely destructive climate change is likely to be, but doubts that the world's governments will be able to agree on effective action to halt it. Now you know why economics is called the dismal science.
Garnaut quotes an authoritative American study of the consequences if nothing is done to fight climate change and average temperatures rise by 5 or 6 degrees by the end of this century.
Such a change would be "catastrophic", posing "almost inconceivable challenges as human society struggled to adapt". "The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilise virtually every aspect of modern life," the study concluded.
Among the destruction would be the extinction of more than half the world's species. The Great Barrier Reef and other coral formations would almost certainly be killed and much Australian farmland rendered useless.
Worse, the Greenland ice sheet and parts of Antarctica would be highly likely to melt, greatly raising the sea level and inundating coastal areas in Australia and many other countries. These changes would be irreversible.
Garnaut says that to reduce these risks to acceptable levels, we need agreement and action by all the major countries to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million - although 400 would be better.
(Note that we've already reached 455 parts per million, so we'd go well above the 450 target before eventually getting back down to it.)
But Garnaut doubts that any comprehensive agreement will be forthcoming from the post-Kyoto negotiations at Copenhagen in December next year or in negotiations soon after.
Summoning all the optimism at a dismal scientist's disposal, however, he says "there is a chance, just a chance, that humanity will act in time and in ways that reduce the risks of climate change to acceptable levels".
But don't get your hopes up, because time's running out. "Opportunities to hold risks of dangerous climate change to acceptable levels diminish rapidly after 2013 if no major developing economies are accepting constraints to hold emissions significantly below business as usual by that time."
There you see the source of Garnaut's pessimism: the rapid growth in greenhouse gas emissions by the developing countries in general, and China in particular.
He asserts that the best hope of achieving a comprehensive global agreement would be to settle for a target of stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases at 550 parts per million.
The trouble with this, however, is that such a level would still leave high risks of damage to the reef and farmland and reaching tipping points on ice melting - as Garnaut readily concedes.
This is the reason for the strong criticism of Garnaut's recommendations from environmentalists and some scientists. It's not that he doubted the scientists' warnings, or got his calculations wrong, or said the loss of economic growth would be too high a price to pay, but that he hasn't been ambitious enough in the bargaining position he wants Australia to take to Copenhagen.
The critics think we should aim high and let others beat us down from there rather than aim low and end up lower.
I agree. Our goal can't be to cut our emissions hard for its own sake. Without an effective agreement by all major emitters, what we do makes no difference. So all our effort must go into helping to achieve such an agreement, and that means being willing to put an offer of big cuts on the table. ...
The European Union has made an unconditional offer to cut its total emissions by 20 per cent, whereas Garnaut says we should offer unconditional cuts of a pathetic 5 per cent.
But get this: translated into cuts per person, the EU's 20 per cent shrinks to 17 per cent whereas our 5 per cent expands to 25 per cent. Now who's not trying?
With one stroke, Garnaut has given unwarranted offence to environmentalists while giving false comfort to our short-sighted and selfish big business lobby.