The striking thing about Tony Abbott's attempt to balance damage to the environment against damage to the economy in choosing an emissions reduction target is how mind-bogglingly small the damage to the economy would be.
Abbott's cabinet endorsed the target last week. Whereas until now Australia has tried to lower emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, at the Paris conference in December it will offer about the same as the United States". It is true the US is offering a cut of 26 to 28 per cent, but its cut is to be delivered by 2025, five years earlier than Australia's 2030.
Comparing like for like and assuming the US continued its promised rate of cuts beyond 2025, the US is offering 35 to 39 per cent, compared with Australia's 26 to 28 per cent.
Abbott might have been hoping we wouldn't notice...
On a like-for-like basis, we will offer less than Britain United Kingdom, less than Germany, less than the European Union, less than Canada and less than New Zealand; less than most of the countries with which we like to compare ourselves, including those with conservative governments.
The Prime Minister says the offer is better than Japan's target and better than China's.
But Japan has lost most of its low-emission power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and China is a developing nation with living standards a fraction of ours. Its offer to cap its emissions before 2030 is more than we could have hoped for.
What's clever about Abbott's offer is that it's just enough for us to be taken seriously. We're at the bottom of a pack, we are not promising as much as needed, but at least we are in the pack.
And the Prime Minister says he has to be "economically responsible".
"We have got to reduce our emissions, but we have got to reduce our emissions in ways which are consistent with continued strong growth," he said on Tuesday.
Evoking an image of balanced scales, he said the last thing he wanted to do was to "strengthen the environment and, at the same time, damage our economy".
Which would make sense if the scales weren't so outrageously unbalanced. His own economic modelling makes the balance clear.
Abbott says it concludes that the cost of a 26 per cent cut in emissions will be "between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of GDP in the year of 2030".
That's right, between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of GDP. Not between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent a year, which would be noticeable, but far less than that – about 0.01 to 0.02 per cent a year, which would mean that in 15 years, the economy would be 0.2 to 0.3 per cent smaller than it would have been.
How big would it have been? By then, the projections in the intergenerational report have the economy being one and a half times as big as it is today.
Some of it will be the result of population growth – our population will be 21 per cent bigger by then – but the rest will the result of a higher standard of living, if the projections in the intergenerational report turn out to be correct.
By 2030, instead of being worth $1.6 trillion, the Australian economy will be worth $2.4 trillion; that's unless something dents that growth.
Abbott's modelling shows that the dent from an emissions target of 26 per cent would be 0.03 per cent. The dent would mean that instead of being worth $2.4 trillion when rounded to one decimal place, the economy would be worth $2.4 trillion when rounded to one decimal place. It'd be hard to see.
And hard to feel.
It would amount to $7 billion in a $2.4 trillion economy.
But by then, even with the emissions target, the economy would be growing at the rate of about $5 billion every four weeks. In six weeks, it would have made up the $7 billion it lost as a result of the emissions reduction target.
If you don't much mind feeling as well off as you did six weeks ago, you're going to not much mind an emissions reduction target of 26 per cent. Nor would you mind one much bigger.
The Climate Change Authority's assessment of what is needed works out at a 45 to 63 per cent cut in emissions on 2005 levels. It might set us back 14 weeks.
That's how small an economic price we would need to pay to do everything that could reasonably be expected to limit the increase in global temperature. That's how easy a confident government would have found it to do more.In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald