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Australia: Has PM Kevin Rudd taken `a significant step forward on climate change'?

By David Spratt

May 5, 2009 -- Kevin Rudd's announced changes to the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) has again split the climate movement, and this time it's very serious, with three large, rusted-on-to-Labor [Party] groups running cover for an appalling policy that won't guarantee a reduction in Australian emissions for decades.

The grassroots movement which gathered in Canberra in January 2009, with 500 people and 150 groups, for the first national Climate Action Summit and unanimously opposed the CPRS legislation, appears uniformly angry. Sixty-six climate action groups have written to the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saying that: “We believe that you have abandoned your duty of care to protect the Australian people as well as our species and habitats from dangerous climate change.”

The re-worked proposals for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme announced on May 4 by Rudd were described by The Greens party as "making the 'worse than useless' scheme even worse and giving another $2.2 billion to big polluters. It also fails on voluntary action" and has an "almost irrelevant green distraction of a hypothetical 25% target to undermine criticism".

John Hepburn of Greenpeace said: "It's clear that Rudd has been listening to the big polluters and this is another shift towards the interests of polluters rather than climate action. We're rapidly running out of time and we'd like this scheme to go back to the drawing board until Kevin Rudd can stand up to the big polluters and take action in the interests of the Australian people."

Friends of the Earth "criticised the raising of the government's hypothetical target range as an exercise in “smoke and mirrors”, aimed at hiding the further windfall for polluters."

ACF, WWF acquiesce

But the three peak climate advocacy groups that have acquiesced or actively supported the government's "clean coal" policies — the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Climate Institute — again lined up to support Labor, together with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS). Michelle Grattan in the Melbourne Age noted that "the biggest concessions are the brown ones" and that "Kevin Rudd has stitched key groups in behind a revised emissions trading deal — both browner and greener than before — to put maximum pressure on [opposition leader] Malcolm Turnbull".

John Conner of the Climate Institute, on behalf of the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (ACF, ACTU, ACOSS and Climate Institute), said it was now time for all parties to pass the scheme.

ACF CEO Don Henry told staff:

We have achieved a significant step forward on climate change. The Government has just announced that it will take on a target of reducing Australia’s emissions by 25% by 2020 in the context of a Copenhagen agreement that has the effect of stabilising emissions at 450ppm or lower.
That is wrong in science, of which more later.

ACF climate campaigner Owen Pascoe added:

This is good step forward and the positives outweigh the negatives. However there’s a lot more to be done and we’ll keep pushing for our ask of 30 to 40% cuts.
For the record, the changes to the proposed scheme also:

  • delay its introduction for a year to July 1, 2011, and set a nominal price of A$10 a tonne with unlimited number of permits until July 1, 2012, so there will be no effective action for another three years;

  • increase the permits to the biggest polluters in the first year from 90% to 95% and from 60% to 70% (so that in the first year the biggest polluters will be effectively paying 50 cents per tonne to pollute, as Environment Victoria has noted);

  • keeps the provision for unlimited outsourcing of Australia's national responsibilities by allowing the purchase of permits from overseas without limit, so that the scheme has no mechanism for ensuring that Australia's emissions (as opposed to domestic permits) will drop by even one tonnne by 2050;

  • fails to deal adequately with the question of additionality/voluntary action. As Environment Victoria notes: "The fix to recognise household and business voluntary action through GreenPower is welcome, but the mechanism is awful. By only recognising additional GreenPower purchases above 2009 levels the Government is guaranteeing the collapse of existing GreenPower customer purchases and therefore jeopardising the whole program. Furthermore the Rudd Government has failed to recognise the benefit of all other types of voluntary emissions reductions or additional action, which, like GreenPower, can be accounted for."

  • will not, contrary to back-slapping comments by the ACTU, produce an avalanche of "green jobs" because it is not designed to close down the brown jobs. Instead of building a clean, renewable-energy economy and technological capacity, Australia will continue to stumble at the back of the pack.

So why are some of the big climate advocacy groups so keen on this disaster? Is their public position supported by the evidence? Here's a look at the views expressed by ACF and others, and whether it is justifiable.

ISSUE 1. Passing the CPRS is necessary for Australia to be credible at Copenhagen.

No, quite the opposite. If there were no legislation, Australia's position would not be tied by law to Rudd's poor target and pressure would be maintained to catch up with the leading bunch. The targets in the proposed CPRS legislation are out of whack with the major players such as the UK, US and EU, who have agreed to unconditional cut emissions of 34-46%, 20% and 20-30% from 1990 levels respectively. Let's be honest, what happens at Copenhagen depends more than any other factor on what the G2 – the USA and China — strike by way of a climate deal, and what Australia puts in the table has little relevance to that. They are used to Australia behaving badly.

ISSUE 2. If there is a reasonable outcome in Copenhagen, Australia will be committed to a 25% cut by 2020.

As Adam Morton reported in The Age on May 5: "Kevin Rudd says he now has an ambitious greenhouse target on the table for 2020. And he does: cutting emissions to 25 per cent below 2000 levels will require hard work across the economy. But we know the Government also thinks this almost certainly won't happen. Why? Because Penny Wong told us so in December. Ignore yesterday's spin about recent progress in international climate talks. The Government believes that a new deal won't meet the strict conditions it has put in place for Australia to sign up for a 25 per cent cut. If it is right — and there are plenty familiar with the climate talks who believe it is — Australia's ultimate target will be in the range it was before yesterday: between 5 and 15 per cent. No change, then."

ISSUE 3. The CPRS can reduce Australia's emissions by 25% by 2020.

This is complete bull, regardless of what happens at Copenhagen. By allowing an unlimited number of permits to be bought from overseas, through such dubious schemes as REDD and the CDM, the CPRS cannot guarantee that even one tonne of Australian emissions (as opposed to domestic permits) will be cut. Australian Treasury modelling assumes no drop in Australian emissions for another 25 years (see Tim Colebatch, "One little word undoes the PM's claims on greenhouse gases", The Age, December 23, 2008).

This provision alone should be enough to scuttle the whole scheme. How can this be "a significant step forward on climate change" when it won't guarantee to cut one tonne of domestic emissions? In fact, what the CPRS is doing is locking in, through legislation, for decades to come, a high-pollution economy dominated by high-pollution industries and brown jobs.

ISSUE 4. If the high-polluting nations such as Australia adopted a policy of reducing emissions to 25% below 1990 by 2020 this would likely lead to an international agreement that would stabilise emissions at 450 ppm or lower.

Here is a case of "if you say something often enough, you'll end up believing it". Too many climate groups and climate scientists have been saying this so long and so often, yet it is so untrue.

The 2007 IPCC report found that Kyoto Annex 1 countries would need to reduce their emissions by 25-40% by 2020 for a 450 ppm target. Note how everybody has dropped the 40% end of this formulation, as if it never existed. Australia, as the highest per capita polluter of the Annex I members, would certainly be at the 40% end of the range, but this is rarely mentioned.

But as I have noted elsewhere the target range of 25-40% by 2020 does NOT include "slow feedbacks" which increase climate sensitivity and require lower targets. Even the IPCC 2007 synthesis report noted that “emissions reductions ... might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks” (page 67) and this may require the cumulative emissions budget for the 21st century (the total amount of GHGs than can be emitted for a stabilisation level) to be “about 27% less” than is assumed. But the 25-40/2020 target and other IPCC emission reduction scenarios do not include this consideration!

New research published last week and discussed in more detail here found that to restrict warming to 2 degrees C the total carbon budget available to the world is 190 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. Even if the world starting cutting emissions by 2% each year, that budget will run out by 2030 and we need zero emissions from 2030 on to keep to 2 degrees C.

ISSUE 5. That 450 ppm would reasonably limit global warming to 2 degrees C.

No, it won't. Analysis for the 2006 Stern Report (page 195) shows that a 450 ppm CO2e target has:

• A 26–78% probability of exceeding 2C relative to pre-industrial

• A 4–50% probability of exceeding 3C

• A 0–34% probability of exceeding 4C

• A 0–21% probability of exceeding 5C

450 ppm has a 4% to 50% probability of exceeding 3 degrees C!!!! That is not defensible and I can't understand how anybody who works professionally on climate change could ever think for one second that it is a reasonable target to utter in public. What are they thinking?

After a careful reassessment of climate sensitivity and climate history data, leading NASA scientist James Hansen and his co-authors in Target atmosphere CO2: Where should humanity aim concluded that the tipping point for the presence, or absence, of any substantial ice sheets on Earth is around 450 ppm (plus or minus 100 ppm) of CO2. This means that the CO2 levels often associated with a 2 degrees C rise – 450 ppm – may just be the tipping point for the total loss of all ice sheets on the planet and a huge sea-level rise.

If you are silly enough to want to talk about a 2C target, then to have a 2 in 3 chance of holding to 2C, atmospheric carbon needs to be held to 400 ppm CO2e and that requires a global reduction is emissions of 80% by 2050 (on 1990 levels) and negative emissions after 2070. And with high climate sensitivity, a risk-averse target for 2 degrees C is around 350 ppm CO2e – just to meet a 2 degrees C target that is actually dangerous.

The big groups know privately that 350 ppm and lower should be the target. John Connor of the Climate Institute told Crikey recently that the science leads us to 350 ppm, and the ACF Council has adopted a 350 ppm target, but this has not yet seen the light of day in ACF's public advocacy.

ISSUE 6. That 2 degrees C is a reasonable target to avoid dangerous climate change.

No, it will ensure that climate change is dangerous. A rise of 2C over pre-industrial temperatures will initiate large climate feedbacks in the oceans, on ice sheets and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points. Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets; the extinction of an estimated 15-40 per cent of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidification; increasing methane release; substantial soil and ocean carbon-cycle feedbacks; and widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe and the western USA. If you don't believe me, read Mark Lynas's book, Six Degrees.

450 ppm is roughly the current greenhouse gas level, and in 2008 two scientists, V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng in On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead, found that if greenhouse gases were fixed at their 2005 levels the inferred warming is 2.4˚C (range 1.4˚C to 4.3˚C) and that would be sufficient to result in the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, the Himalayan–Tibetan glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet . The loss of Greenland ice sheet produces about a 7-metre global sea-level rise. One conclusion is that advocacy of the 25-40%/2020 target, for example by the ACF in its 2008 "Special Places" campaign, will result in the destruction of many of Australia’s “special places” ACF wants to protect; Kakadu, for example, will salinate with a sea-level rise of less than a metre.

James Hansen told US Congress in testimony last year that: “We have reached a point of planetary emergency … climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a perfect storm, a global cataclysm, are assembled … the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than +2 degrees Celsius is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.”

But the ACF says the government announcement of "a target of reducing Australia’s emissions by 25% by 2020 in the context of a Copenhagen agreement that has the effect of stabilising emissions at 450 ppm or lower" is a "significant step forward on climate change".

Take your pick, but I'd rather go with the climate scientist. As Ken Ward, the former deputy director of Greenpeace USA and an environmental strategist has so acutely observed, we must “stop seeking and celebrating dinky achievements” because “nothing that we are doing, nor even seriously contemplating, comes anywhere near such a massive transformation [as is necessary], yet every actor on the political stage … downplays the terrible realities and trumpet small-scale solutions wrapped in upbeat rhetoric... We are racing toward the end of the world and have no plan of escape, but it is considered impolite to acknowledge that fact in public.”

ISSUE 7. That if this legislation is passed, it is reasonable to expect that the government will do more and go further than its own legislation.

Pull the other leg.

It appears the strategy of the groups who have endorsed the CPRS is to pretend that we don't face a climate crisis that requires emergency action, so they endorse incremental policies and never talk about the elephant in the room. Which is this: we only get one shot at this, and a trial run (read: locking in bad policy for decades) is not an option.

Today at just less than 1 degree C of global warming we are witnessing of the destruction of the Arctic ecosystem. Eight million square kilometres of sea ice is disappearing fast each summer and may be entirely gone within a few years. Already 80% by volume of summer sea ice has been loss, and regional warming of up to 5 degrees C may have already pushed the Greenland ice sheet (eventual sea-level rise of 7 metres) past its tipping point.

Do the ACF and the Climate Institute and WWF tell the government this?

We know that the present level of greenhouse gases is enough to increase temperatures by more than 2 degrees Celsius over time. We have already gone too far, there is already too much carbon in the air. At less than 1 degree Celsius we are on the way to triggering a multi-metre sea-level rise that will devastate coastal infrastructure, delta peasant–farming communities and some of the world's biggest cities. Our only choice is to head back to zero degrees Celsius of warming, to halt all emissions and drawdown atmospheric carbon to return the planet to a safe-climate zone.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute and Europe's leading climate scientist, says that “we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise”, so “our survival would very much depend on how well we were able to draw down carbon dioxide to 280 parts per million”, compared to the present level of close to 390 ppm.

Do the ACF and the Climate Institute and WWF tell the government this?

Put starkly, we either keep warming under the range where carbon feedbacks become sufficiently pervasive as to make further human action futile, or we do not. We have a safe climate or we have a global catastrophe. There are no middle-of-the-road compromises. We must head back towards zero. At 1 degree Celsius the genie is out of the bottle, at 2 degrees Celsius the bottle is broken.

One of the great powers of the climate action movement is our capacity to withhold support from, and actively campaign against, actions of governments that are designed to fail, as the CPRS will. Presently there is political denial, even an arrogance of power that leads governments to believe that they can negotiate with the climate and the laws of physics and chemistry, a land of tradeoffs, where climate is just another issue, the politics partisan, the action slow, all embedded in a culture of compromise and failure. Monday May 4 was a great example.

It is a tragedy that some should glowingly support such failure.

[David Spratt is a leading Australian campaigner against climate change and co-author of Climate Code Red. This article first appeared at the Climate Code Red blog, and has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

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