Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hot air obscures the real climate change story

The reduced, but still majority public support for action against climate change - which seems to have frightened Kevin Rudd off pursuing "the great moral and economic challenge of our time" - may be explained by the Coalition's "great big new tax" scare campaign.

But there have been other reasons for the public's disenchantment that rest just as much on misrepresentation of the facts.

If, for instance, you believe the Rudd government's commitment to an unconditional reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 5 per cent by 2020 is a negligible effort, you're a victim of environmentalists' dishonesty.

And if you believe the Copenhagen summit in December ended in failure with nothing achieved, you're a victim of the climate change ostriches' propaganda (not to mention a media that over-reports minority scientific opinion, led by one Australian newspaper that's taken to selling itself by slanting its news reporting to fit the political prejudices of its target market).

Let's start with the commitment to reduce Australia's emissions by 5 per cent of their level in 2000 by 2020. It sounds pathetically small, but it's not. Why not? Because, left to their own devices, emissions are projected to keep growing strongly over the 20 years to 2020. We're already almost halfway through the period and emissions are up a lot.

It turns out that to reduce emissions in 2020 to 5 per cent less than their level in 2000 will require us to reduce them by 22 per cent of the level to which they'd otherwise have grown. Still think that sounds a negligible effort?

And get this: a big part of the reason our emissions will grow so rapidly if not constrained is the strong growth in our population over the period. So if you were to express the target in terms of the reduction per person, it rises to 28 per cent. Still think it's a pathetic effort?

Now try this: because the relationships involved aren't linear (they don't move in straight lines), it turns out that, still in per-person terms, our unconditional target to reduce emissions by 5 per cent would involve a reduction that was more than half the size of the 25 per cent reduction we offered to make if a watertight global deal could be done.

Why did Rudd and his ministers do virtually nothing to make sure people understood that a 5 per cent reduction was a lot bigger than it sounded? Probably because he wanted people to think it wasn't much. But also because he miscalculated badly, grossly underestimating the difficulty he would have getting his emissions trading scheme through Parliament and putting little effort into countering the climate change ostriches' scare campaign.

But why did the Greens pretend that 5 per cent was nothing when they must have known it wasn't true? Because it didn't suit the line they were pushing. It proves that the ever-virtuous Greens are just as capable of lying with statistics as the mainstream parties are.

Now for the mistaken notion that the Copenhagen meeting achieved no agreement between the rich and poor countries. Someone has remarked that the Copenhagen accord was "at once a profound disappointment and a major step forward".

It's true no legally binding global deal was done between the 194 countries attending - this was probably always an unrealistic expectation - but it's also true they avoided the temptation to do a deal they had no intention of honouring (which has happened before at international meetings).

But Dr Martin Parkinson, the secretary of the Department of Climate Change, argued in a recent speech that they did achieve a platform to build on to deliver an effective global agreement.

He said the accord represented a significant advance on the Kyoto Protocol in six respects.

First, both developed and developing countries have agreed to take responsibility for action to hold global temperature increase to below 2 degrees. This is the first time a wide range of countries has agreed on what constitutes dangerous climate change.

Second, for the first time ever both developed and developing countries have committed to action and to specify those commitments within the same framework - the new accord. While developed countries will continue to implement legally binding emission reduction targets, developing countries will also implement nationally appropriate measures to limit their emissions. "A truly historic breakthrough," according to Parkinson.

Third, these commitments will be supported by a framework to monitor implementation of targets and actions. This will provide the transparency and confidence that all countries - rich and poor - are meeting their commitments.

Fourth, developed countries have agreed to provide new and additional financing to developing countries of almost $US30 billion ($33 billion) over the period 2010 to 2012. They also agreed to mobilise $US100 billion a year by 2020 to support developing countries' climate change actions.

This funding will come from government contributions but also from the transactions entered into in global carbon markets as rich countries seek to meet their emissions reduction targets by buying carbon credits from poor countries.

Fifth, countries have agreed to establish a technology mechanism to drive the innovation and diffusion of clean technology.

Sixth, countries have agreed on the need for the immediate establishment of a mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. This is a critical issue if we are to avert dangerous climate change.

Does all that sound like failure to you? Aided by a superficial media, we fell for the old human all-or-nothing fallacy: if we didn't get everything, it must have been a total wipeout.

The agreement was that individual countries would respond with their support within a few months. By now, 119 countries have indicated their support for the accord and 74 have submitted national pledges to limit or reduce their emissions by 2020.

The countries making pledges account for about 80 per cent of global emissions. They include, for the first time, the United States, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.

True, the pledges on the table aren't sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. If implemented, they'd leave the world at least 3 degrees warmer. So we're not there yet. Australia's pledge was as we've discussed: an unconditional 5 per cent reduction as proof of our good faith, rising to a 25 per cent reduction with a strong global deal.

One blemish: this week our will-o-the-wisp Prime Minister made the unconditional 5 per cent conditional on what other countries have done by 2013.