Goodbye, Murray Darling

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The latest installment in Professor Ross Garnaut’s tortuous journey through the travails of climate change policy was released on Friday. Entitled Targets and Trajectories, it is officially a supplementary addendum to his substantial Draft Report published in June, which we analysed at newmatilda.com here.

Garnaut’s latest report is another politically calibrated and media-savvy document that contains a number of surprises in the fine detail. It’s clear that Professor Garnaut has a substantial command of the bedevilling policy detail of climate change. Sadly, it looks as though the immense amount of detailed knowledge he has acquired in the past year has made him pessimistic for the fate of the planet.

What does the report say? Basically, it contains Garnaut’s first approximations of how much and how quickly Australia should cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Garnaut’s headline figures are low, especially for his 2020 target. He argues Australia should aim for a 10 per cent cut in emissions compared to 2000 levels by 2020, and an 80 per cent cut by 2050. This target should be made in the context of a global agreement to stabilise global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at around 550 parts per million (they are about 384ppm now). We should really be aiming for 450 or 400, Garnaut writes, but he thinks there is very little chance the world will be able to agree to such significant reductions.

newmatilda.com readers will recall, as prominent climate scientist James Hansen has argued, that the true threshold for significant, long-term, irreversible climate change is actually even lower than this: probably 320 parts per million. So even Garnaut’s best case target still leaves Australia in a dramatically hotter, drier, more fire-, drought- and cyclone-prone future. That’s the best case.

The worst case? It’s difficult to imagine, but we should try, just for a minute. The business-as-usual scenario is a hell on earth. Garnaut quotes a paper by respected (and quite conservative) global security and war think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, which concluded "The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilise virtually every aspect of modern life."

You can stop worrying about the Great Barrier Reef and the Murray Darling in that scenario. They’ll be long gone, and we will instead be worrying about Greenland and much of Antarctica melting away. At that point, coastal Australians would be well advised to invest in some life jackets and flippers.

Garnaut seems to be getting more and more depressed about the prospects of global action on this most important of international policies. "There are moments in the history of humanity when fateful choices are made," he writes, and "the decision over the next few years on whether to take strong action to mitigate human-induced climate change is one such moment." Garnaut goes on to argue that the potential economic and social dislocation of business as usual – resulting in a 5.6 degree increase in global temperatures – would be comparable to the impact of the Great Depression, or perhaps even worse. Garnaut gives the world "just a chance" of avoiding this fate. "The process of international cooperation," he writes, "… is perhaps the most formidable of international relations challenges; more formidable than the multilateral trade negotiations which have recently collapsed."

Garnaut then goes on to say that if the world cannot come to a post-Kyoto agreement on emissions reductions, Australia should aim for a cut of only 5 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, which would basically equal a $20 per tonne carbon price plus CPI. It should be remembered, of course, that the business-as-usual scenario would see substantial increases in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, so even a 5 per cent cut is actually a reasonably significant decrease on how much we would have emitted. It’s just that it won’t be enough. Not nearly enough.

Small wonder then, that this depressingly low target has attracted considerable criticism from the greener end of the spectrum, particularly the lobby groups like The Climate Institute, and three scientists from the UN’s climate change panel. Climate Institute CEO John Connor attacked the targets, saying Penny Wong should reject them. "Accepting the recommended 2020 targets of 5 or 10 per cent reductions," he stated, "would strip Australia of international credibility in global climate talks." Climate activists Anna Rose and Amanda McKenzie make the excellent point that "failing to aim for where we want to go will guarantee that we will not get there", while Kenneth Davidson observes that, given what we know of the science, "the 450-550 ppm range is not so much a target but a signpost to disaster".

But big business seems quite pleased, according to their cheerleaders at The Australian. This also is not surprising, given that Garnaut has proposed something much closer to their preferred policy option of doing as little as possible.

It’s hard not to conclude that cynicism about the so-called "political reality" of climate policy has got the better of Professor Garnaut. That’s a tragedy, because that very reality has been shaped not just by runaway growth in the developing world but by the baleful influence of special interests, such as the Business Council of Australia, in the developed.

Accepting this reality now means saying goodbye to our present global climate conditions … forever.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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