Carbon targets II – first thoughts on the Garnaut Review emissions trajectories

The Australian report on the economic impact of global warming, known as the Garnaut Climate Change Review, has just released its supplementary draft report on targets and trajectories. I’ve provided some commentary for the Australian Science Media Centre. These are only initial thoughts based on a preliminary read, and I will to develop these ideally more fully at the bravenewclimate blog over the coming months, but this is hot and ready for the press:

Garnaut’s Targets and Trajectories report describes a fateful choice – do we act now with every means at our disposal, or do we permit business-as-usual carbon emissions to so disrupt the global climate system that the very fabric of our civilisation is ripped to shreds within the lifetime of people alive today?

Yet there is stark irony underlying the modelling which supports the emissions targets by 2020 and 2050. It is this: the Garnaut review team readily admits that even the 450ppm CO2 target – almost implausibly difficult given the current explosive growth of emissions in the developing world – will lead to a crisis situation with untenable levels of global warming.

So, given the gross inadequacy of even the best case scenario, why bother with this approach at all?

My personal view is that arguing about whether we should be aiming for a 10%, 20% or even 90% emissions reduction target by 2020 is pointless and circular. The target is irrelevant without knowing how we hit it.

It’s a bit like setting up a shooting target on a firing range at 300m and being told by the marshal to hit the bullseye. You ask: ‘Okay, but what am I shooting with, a rifle or a bow and arrow?’ The marshal says: ‘That’s irrelevant, just focus on hitting the bullseye’. But of course the weapon is highly relevant – it is almost impossible to hit a target at 300m with a bow and arrow.

So the key to unlock this ‘diabolical problem’ is to focus on the energy technologies, as urgently as humanly possible. Design a capital works programme, lead by a forward-looking government, to start laying out solar thermal, wave, wind, geothermal and microalgal biodiesel liquid fuels on a massive scale. Define a REAL 2020 goal, such as to have 80% of Australia’s power met by renewables by 2020, instead of some abstract target that is reliant on an unenforceable multilateral global agreement which will never eventuate.

Prove up the technologies here in Australia, with extreme urgency and dedication, and pass on that know-how and innovation to the world. Show that it can be done, and not only that, show that it is not difficult to do and that costs fall rapidly as learning-by-doing proceeds. Even with current tech developments, all of Australia’s power needs could be met by a solar thermal array carpeting a 50 x 50 km square of outback desert. This is possible, not hypothetical.

Encourage the venture capital to invest in proven renewables, and they become quickly much cheaper. This also starts the wheels of innovation spinning madly.

A carbon price is clearly needed to trigger this transformation, but an emissions trading scheme is not the obvious route to do it. It is a blunt instrument for a simple problem. A carbon tax of around $50 a tonne of CO2 would be sufficient to make a whole raft of renewables cost competitive. A steadily increasing carbon price brings market certainty and makes investment in energy tech that is becoming cheaper, a business ‘no brainer’. Hit imports with a carbon tariff equal to what companies are paying domestically, and give our exporters a carbon tax deduction at the trade gate, to equalise with world markets. Australia needs to lose no competitive advantage from this – only gain by being a great 21st century innovator.

Let’s simplify this problem down to what really counts, and actually lead the world in fixing the climate crisis before it’s too late.

I’ll be speaking about this further on ABC 891 Adelaide at 5:10pm today (Friday 5 Sept 2008), just before Climate Change Q&A session #3.

[For other views, visit the AusSMC site]

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24 Comments

  1. For an economist Garnaut impresses me all-in-all, especially with his assessment of both the economic and non-economic future costs of AGW. I can even understand the reasoning behind his low emissions target… although I hope that Garnaut’s quote of Justin Langer is closer to the future progress of national and global response.

    The thing that knots my gut though is the feeling that the momentum in the system, and the inertia in the global human response, are going in two different directions.

    I guess we’ll know sooner or later – the living and non-living systems of the planet will continue integrating the consequences of AGW, and our tardy response will be reflected in that signature.

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  2. “Define a REAL 2020 goal, such as to have 80% of Australia’s power met by renewables by 2020, instead of some abstract target that is reliant on an unenforceable multilateral global agreement which will never eventuate.”

    At last, pragmatism – I’m stunned.

    I think I might have mentioned something earlier about the likelihood of ever reaching global consensus regarding the use of fossil fuels being a hopeless cause and being yelled at by all and sundry.

    Ah well, like water…

    But ‘Solar Central’ doesn’t have to be buried in just a ‘carbon pollution’ message. I won’t vote for that, but I will vote for a plan to make Australia energy self sufficient and to clean up the La Trobe Valley and similar areas in NSW, especially if it is part of a grand national project – another ‘Snowy Hydro Scheme’.

    Capture the imagination, no more reliance on Arab oil, an Australia without foreign hands clawing at our energy testicles, Australia exporting electricity to Indonesia…

    That said, the import tariff idea may cause a bit of a ruction, but what the hell – they need our wheat, barley, iron ore and dare I say it uranium, just as much (if not more) as we need their Ipods and plasma TVs.

    So get the ball rolling, what will it cost and when can it start?

    Looking for a location?

    In another life I regularly spend interminable weeks wandering around the awful country to the north and west of Woomera, it’s flat and #!%$ing hot – no shortage of sun out there.

    That previous paragraph is just a segue so I can boast that I used to be able to put rounds through a 25cm circle at 300m without effort… Those were the days; I can barely see 300m now.

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  3. “In another life I regularly spend interminable weeks wandering around the awful country to the north and west of Woomera, it’s flat and #!%$ing hot – no shortage of sun out there.”

    Me too, looking for oil and gas. No shortage of ‘hot rocks’ either. To put money where my mouth is I have invested in the company to come on-line with geothermal.

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  4. I love your passion, Barry.

    Not sure I can agree with you on a couple of key points, though.

    1. “The target is irrelevant without knowing how we hit it.”

    I’m quite happy for the government to do what Garnaut recommends – limit the total amount of emissions by auctioning emission permits, encourage basic R&D to overcome market failure in that area, and let the market figure out the best way to supply energy within that framework. (And give most of the cash back to us.)

    Maybe 2,500 square kilometres of solar panels will be the best way to do it, maybe not. We’ll see.

    The government doesn’t really have to pick winners in this case. It may turn out that the best form of non-GHG energy production is a natural monopoly, in which case government has an obvious role, but let business punt their money, not mine, I say.

    The government didn’t have to sponsor research into alternatives to CFCs or asbestos. Why oil and coal?

    I found Garnaut’s arguments for a cap-and-trade scheme rather than a tax (in his draft report) pretty compelling.

    2. “Define a REAL 2020 goal, such as to have 80% of Australia’s power met by renewables by 2020, instead of some abstract target that is reliant on an unenforceable multilateral global agreement which will never eventuate.”

    If the target is so ambitious the scheme is shot down by special interests then that would make other countries less inclined to join a global scheme.

    And if a multilateral global agreement never eventuates, then reducing Australia’s GHG emissions by 80% will make no difference in the long run, heroic though it may have seemed at the time.

    I would prefer a more ambitious target, but Garnaut (realistically I think) is trying for something that is mild enough to be acceptable to the local electorate without being gutted by special interests, but strong enough to show the rest of the world that we’re serious.

    Remember, the target can be adjusted through time – five yearly reviews, I think – but only if the scheme gets off the ground. My suspicion is that once alternative’s to fossil fuels reach a critical mass the transition to lower carbon intensities will become much easier and quicker.

    By the way, for those who didn’t see Garnaut’s speech today at the National Press Club (it was on TV), if they eventually post a podcast of it on his web site or the ABC it would be worth a look.

    His comments on China (he was ambassador there for three years I think) were very interesting. Basically, he said China leads the world in spending on every type of alterative energy and has taken measures (eg a 15% tax on aluminium exports) to curb GHG emissions. That was in answer to a question.

    I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of the Chinese government to enforce GHG emission limits. Remember, these are the people who shut down industry in a major industrial zone for several weeks recently so it would look nice on TV.

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  5. “I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of the Chinese government to enforce GHG emission limits. Remember, these are the people who shut down industry in a major industrial zone for several weeks recently so it would look nice on TV.”

    It goes to motive dear Gaz, image is important to the Chinese regime – restraining their rapidly increasing growth in order to placate the carbon sensitives of the world is not.

    The Chinese are pragmatists, if they have to lose a month’s production to look nice on the telly that’s fine.

    But don’t for a moment believe they are in the slightest bit interested in slowing their entire economic revolution in order to slake the environmental thirst of the west.

    They won’t be happy with parity, they will only stop or pause when they have achieved a position of unassailable power.

    Once they achieve that position it will truly be time to query our future.

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  6. Pingback: I’m left near speechless with rage at Garnaut’s 10% by 2020 (maybe) ‘target’ « civilisationshift

  7. “I’m a hair’s breadth from completely losing hope that catastrophic climate change has any chance of being avoided now.”

    Settle down ‘near speechless’ – your panic is rather unbecoming, take a deep breath, close your eyes and breath out slowly.

    Look around, the world hasn’t disappeared, it’s not a video game with instant apocalypse caused by a ctl, alt, del…

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  8. Who’d ‘a’ thought old Guano was a realist after his talk of 90% cuts by 2050?

    Australia should now honestly, thoroughly and openly evaluate and publicly discuss, the performance of the solar thermal power stations we are now building so that we know what we can really achieve instead of all the pie in the sky waffle that is being proposed.

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  9. WotWot, do you mean about China in a position of strength? Maybe, maybe not. In the brave new world of climate-induced “stressors” on nations – food, energy, etc. that would be induced as a result of a few more decades of BAU, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything. A few more decades of BAU and I have little doubt things will get nasty.

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  10. Who’d ‘a’ thought old Guano was a realist after his talk of 90% cuts by 2050?

    Yes, he’s a realist:

    Based on a 550ppm outcome, Australia’s share of the burden would be a 10 per cent reduction (or 30 per
    cent in per capita terms) by 2020 and an 80 per cent reduction (90 per cent per capita) by 2050 over 2000
    levels.

    I’m glad drongo now realizes that realists understand that emissions need to be reduced by at least 80% by 2050 and consequently all his denialism in the past about global warming is crap.

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  11. @ PeterW

    Two comments.

    1.

    But don’t for a moment believe they are in the slightest bit interested in slowing their entire economic revolution in order to slake the environmental thirst of the west.

    While China may indeed still be building far, far too many coal-fired power stations (although I read recently that what is not mentioned much in that context is the concomitant removal of old ones), they are simultaneously going nuts with new wind and solar PV capacity, not to mention rapidly increasing domestic and indigenous manufacturing capacity. I’m no apologist for China, and I agree with you that shutting down industrial activity for a few Olympic weeks isn’t that meaningful, the fact is China is in many ways doing more than the West. Certainly more than Australia.

    2.

    Settle down ‘near speechless’ – your panic is rather unbecoming, take a deep breath, close your eyes and breath out slowly.

    Look around, the world hasn’t disappeared, it’s not a video game with instant apocalypse caused by a ctl, alt, del…

    Unbecoming? How would you know? In any case I’m not ‘panicking’, I’m extremely angry that Garnaut says one thing — the world cannot have each country claiming special interest in any meaningful climate negotiations — and then proposes Australia do just that.
    And I never suggested the world was a video game with some sort of ahistorical push-button climatic collapse, so you can keep your patronising quasi-climatology insights to yourself thanks very much.

    Having said that, parts of the world — the Arctic and possibly Greenland spring to mind — are indeed collapsing as we watch. But more importantly this is not a process that has just begun; the clock reads 23:58 and we can hardly afford to waste what little political momentum there is with 5+ years of institutionalising nonsense soft targets that mean nothing at all for addressing the urgency of climate change mitigation. By the time that becomes overthrown and real targets implemented, the clock may well have struck 00:00. Game over.

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  12. drongo:

    Somehow, I thought he offered other scenarios.

    Garnaut:

    Australia should put its strongest possible efforts into securing a global agreement to limit emissions to no
    more than 550 parts per million CO2-e and encourage the world onto a lower emissions path as soon as
    feasible,

    Yes, realists know where to put their strongest possible efforts, even when it contradicts people in denial.

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  13. “And I never suggested the world was a video game with some sort of a historical push-button climatic collapse, so you can keep your patronising quasi-climatology insights to yourself thanks very much.”

    It’s called a metaphor, just like your ‘clock of doom’. By the way how many seats did your dishonest watermelon party gain in the WA elections ……. Oh that’s right NONE.

    Maybe that’s why you’re so snarky this evening.

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  14. @ PeterW

    Yes, I know what a metaphor is. Point being that it was *your* metaphor, not mine, and completely irrelevant to the discussion as nobody was pretending as if this was even remotely ‘sudden’.

    Sorry, dishonest? What are you on about? And it looks like the Greens may well have gained 3, lost 1, retained 1, so that would be 4, actually.

    @ Prof. Brook — very sorry about your comment thread being hijacked. I won’t respond further.

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  15. “Yes, realists know where to put their strongest possible efforts, even when it contradicts people in denial.”

    Be sure to let us all know when you’re doing your 90% reduction.

    BTW, it’s called practicing instead of preaching.

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  16. @ PeterW
    (Sorry again Prof. Brook!) Okay I’ll fully agree with you on that graphic: it’s just wrong. With good intention — to make the point of sea level rise as a real threat — but way over the top; even 12m from Greenland & West Antarctica wouldn’t come close to that imagery.

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  17. Be sure to let us all know when you’re doing your 90% reduction.

    On to another set of goalposts. At least he’s no longer denying that all his denialism in the past about global warming is crap. But for the new set of goalposts let us know when it’s 2050.

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  18. Thanks for that link Peter. The letter doesn’t really say much more than was already covered in the report and Press Club announcement, and certainly nothing about the pros/cons of an emissions reduction target (Government policy) vs renewable technology lay-out/upscaling target (my preference, see above).

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