Australia and Climate Change
Australia has been seen as Ground Zero for climate change and
recently the nation’s top adviser on the topic, Professor Ross
Garnaut, issued an extensive report, “Australia’s Climate Change
Challenge.” Following are some of the conclusions, including
from an appearance at their National Press Club.
From the National Press Club:
“Climate change is a diabolical policy problem .Without early
and strong action, some time before 2020 we will realize we
have indelibly surrendered to forces that have moved beyond our
“Eighty percent of the emissions growth over the next couple of
decades is going to be in the developing countries and much
more after that China is the big story in the period ahead.”
“Australians already face large increases in petrol prices and
they’ll face large increases in electricity prices whether or not
there’s an emissions trading scheme because capital costs have
gone up so much, that’s the other side of the resources boom.”
From the report:
The weight of scientific evidence tells us that Australians are
facing risks of damaging climate change. The risk can be
substantially reduced by strong and early action by all major
economies. Without that action, it is probable that Australians,
over the 21st century and beyond, will experience disruption in
their prosperity and enjoyment of life, and to longstanding
patterns in their lives.
There is no doubt about the position of most reputed specialists
in climate science, in Australia and abroad, on the risks of
climate change. There is strong support for the mainstream
science from the leaders of the relevant science academies in all
of the major countries. The outsider to climate science has no
rational choice but to accept that, on a balance of probabilities,
the mainstream science is right.
There are nevertheless large uncertainties in the science. While
there is a clear majority view that there are high risks, there is
debate and honest recognition of limits to knowledge about the
times and ways in which the risk will manifest itself. Every
climate scientist has his or her views on some issues that differ
from the mainstream in detail .
Climate change is harder than any other issue of high
importance that has come before our polity in living memory.
Climate change presents a new kind of challenge. It is uncertain
in its form and extent, rather than drawn in clear lines. It is
insidious rather than directly confrontational. It is long term
rather than immediate, in both its impacts and its remedies. Any
effective remedies lie beyond any act of national will, requiring
international cooperation of unprecedented dimension and
While an effective response to the challenge would play out over
many decades, it must take shape and be put in place over the
next few years. Without such action, if the mainstream science is
broadly right, the Review’s assessment of likely growth in global
greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of effective mitigation
tells us that the risks of dangerous climate change, already
significant, will soon have risen to dangerously high levels .
The most inappropriate response would be to delude ourselves,
taking small actions that create an appearance of action, but
which do not solve the problem. Such an approach would risk
the integrity of our market economy and political processes to no
We will delude ourselves if we think that scientific uncertainties
are cause for delay. Delaying now will eliminate attractive
lower-cost options. Delaying now is not postponing a decision.
To delay is to deliberately choose to avoid effective steps to
reduce the risks of climate change to acceptable levels.
The good options on mitigation will soon be gone. The
extraordinary growth in emissions from the major developing
countries, first of all China, means that their early participation in
a global agreement on mitigation is essential for success. This
conclusion is at odds with the momentum of current international
discussions. It may not seem fair to the developing countries,
given their stage of development and the history of the
international discussions .
Much anxiety was expressed in consultations about the
possibility of an unconstrained emissions trading scheme from
2010 generating high and unstable prices in the early years, and
this being disruptive for the economy. The Review recognizes
that the high fossil fuel prices of 2008, which are likely to
continue at least for some time, will force considerable emissions
reduction below levels that would otherwise have prevailed in
the years of Australia’s Kyoto commitments, between 2010 and
The international community is too late with effective mitigation
to avoid significant impacts. It may yet fail to put in place
substantial mitigation, in which case the challenge of adaptation
to climate change will be more daunting. Damage from climate
change, perhaps immense damage, is likely to be part of the
Australian reality of the 21st century and beyond .
In making their choices, Australians will have to decide whether
and how much they value many aspects of the natural order and
its social manifestations that have been part of their idea of their
country. In the discussion of climate change, much is made of
natural wonders – of the Great Barrier Reef .We know that we
value them highly, and now we will need to think about whether
we are prepared to pay for their preservation .
The Review takes as its starting point, on the balance of
probabilities and not as a matter of belief, the majority opinion of
the Australian and international scientific communities that
human activities resulted in substantial global warming from the
mid-20th century, and that continued growth in greenhouse gas
concentrations caused by human-induced emissions would
generate high risks of dangerous climate change.
A natural carbon cycle converts the sun’s energy and
atmospheric carbon into organic matter through plants and algae,
and stores it in the earth’s crust and oceans. Stabilization of
carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere requires the rate
of greenhouse gas emissions to fall to the rate of natural
There are many uncertainties around the mean expectations from
the science, with the possibility of outcomes that are either more
benign – or catastrophic.
China has recently overtaken the United States as the world’s
largest emitter, and, in an unmitigated future, would account for
about 35 percent of global emissions in 2030.
Other developing countries are also becoming major contributors
to global emissions growth, and will take over from China as the
main growing sources a few decades from now. Under the
unmitigated case, developing countries would account for about
80 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades and
more after that.
High petroleum prices will not necessarily slow emissions
growth, because of the ample availability of large resources of
high-emissions fossil fuel alternatives, notably coal .
Continued high emissions growth with no mitigation action
carries high risks. These risks would be reduced by ad hoc
mitigation, but remain high for some elements. Ambitious global
mitigation would reduce the risks further, but some systems may
still suffer critical damage .
Growth in emissions is expected to have a severe and costly
impact on agriculture, infrastructure, biodiversity and ecosystems
in Australia .
The hot and dry ends of the probability distributions, with 10
percent chance of realization, would be profoundly disruptive .
The median temperature and rainfall outcomes for Australia from
climate change with unmitigated growth in global emissions –
particularly from impacts on infrastructure, agriculture and
international terms of trade – may see GDP fall from the
reference case by around 4.8 percent, household consumption by
5.4 percent and real wages by 7.8 percent by 2100.
This would represent significant reduction of economic growth
and welfare from what it would have been in the absence of
climate change .
Extreme economic disruption in developing countries from
climate change could exacerbate severe economic effects on
Climate change is a global problem that requires a global
Mitigation effort is increasing around the world, but too slowly
to avoid high risks of dangerous climate change. The recent and
projected growth in emissions means that effective mitigation by
all major economies will need to be stronger and earlier than
previously considered necessary.
The existing international framework is inadequate, but a better
architecture will only come from building on, rather than
overturning, established efforts.
Sources: garnautreview.org, Sydney Morning Herald
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