Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The prodigal nation. Australia about to blow its carbon budget

Australia is about to make one of the most important and potentially costly decisions in its history. There are signs it'll stuff it up.

We have already promised to do our part to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees. It's a commitment we can't get out of, and nor have we tried. All the nations we compare   ourself to have signed up to it, including those with conservative governments such as Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

What's at issue in the next few weeks is how we do it. Australia is being asked to make a specific commitment ahead of the Paris climate summit later this year. The US has done so. It plans to cut carbon emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent relative to 2005 levels by 2025. Europe plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030. China plans to stabilise emissions by 2030.

Australia faces a choice. It can either wind back its emissions quickly, meaning it'll need to do less in the future, or it can wind them back slowly, making the future task harder. Guess which way it is leaning.

It's giving every indication of wanting to place the burden of adjustment on the next generation. It's giving every indication of wanting to do little now so that its successors have to do more later. It's an odd response from a government that (most of the time) understands accounting. It quite rightly savaged Labor for always wanting to boost foreign aid to the UN millennium goal, but 'not yet'. And it savaged Labor for promising to spend awfully big on health and education, but in the future. Labor signed up to agreements that would have given the states big grants for hospitals and schools just beyond the budget horizon, at a time when it had no idea how to fund them.

Now the Coalition is preparing to be just as reckless...

The decision to keep the global temperature increase to 2 degrees gives the world a 'carbon budget'. The budget, calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is 1700 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalents. If any more than that is emitted between 2000 and 2050, global temperatures are likely to climb by more than 2 degrees. If less is emitted they will climb by less. Australia's share of that budget beyond 2013 is 10.1 gigatonnes, around 1 per cent of what's left.

We've got a choice. We can use up that budget quickly and then plan to emit next to nothing in future years, or we can wind back emissions now and use up our budget more slowly.

The Climate Change authority has recommended big action upfront and big action later. It says that's what we will need to keep within our budget. It wants a 30 per cent cut in emissions relative to 2000 levels by 2025. It says that's broadly compatible with what Australia's peers are pledging. Beyond that it wants a further cut of 10 to 30 per cent by 2030.

"If Australia were to pledge the recommended 30 per cent target at the Paris conference this would likely be considered the behaviour of a good global citizen, and go some way to answering those who have questioned Australia's commitment to climate change policy," it said in its report in April. "It would also give Australia the right to expect other countries to behave in like fashion."

Anything less would be the prodigal option. It would give Australia an easy life now in the knowledge that when its budget was spent, life would become tough. It would impose a burden on our children we are not prepared to wear ourselves. It would be the kind of behaviour the Coalition says it abhors when it comes to government debt.

As it happens, the actions we would need to undertake now aren't that scary (just as the actions needed to stop government debt climbing aren't that scary). What is scary is what will be needed if we wait. The Melbourne consultancy ClimateWorks has just launched a web-based calculator. You can visit it at 2050pathways.net.au/calculator and play with the sliders.

My own experiments on the website show that nuclear power would do little to keep us within our budget. That's because it wouldn't produce much electricity by 2050. Switching from coal to renewable energy would do a lot. In fact in my experiments I couldn't keep within the budget without doing it.

Australia's commitment at Paris will have to be credible. It won't be enough to say: "yes we have a plan to keep within our budget, but we are not going to wind back our use of coal, at least until we have to stop". The other nations attending the talks know about calculators. They know what's profligate and what's not.

Australia is expected to announce its decision in July at the major economies forum in the United States. It is still able to get it right. It is still able to show the rest of the world it governs responsibly.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald