For some time now Howard with the assistance of some people who should know better has been establishing a meme that Labor’s 60% emissions target by 2050 will wreck the economy. Labor and the Greens with their 80% target are “peas in a pod”?, both “crazy”? and “Irresponsible”?. We’ll all be rooned for sure.
This meme started back before Easter when within 24 hours at least three public figures repeated the theme. First there was our fearless leader, then John Roskam (the IPA guy) on local Melbourne radio and finally Max Walsh had a go on Saturday Breakfast, with Walsh warning about severe economic implications if instead of doubling power consumption we reduce it by 60%.
Then last week Terry McCrann really let fly, saying that the state premiers had declared war on their citizens.
EVERY state and territory premier has officially declared war on his – in the case of the Northern Territory’s Clare Martin, her – very own citizens.
That is the astonishing reality of their commitment last Friday to a 60 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050.
For if ‘achieved’, it would wreak devastation across the national and individual state economies of such degree as to make the Great Depression of the 1930s look like a picnic in the park.
At base Howard, Roskam, Walsh, McCrann may accept the reality of global warming and climate change, but are denialists about it’s scope and effects. They think that the effects will be so marginal that the economy can sail along on a penalty-free ‘business-as-usual’ basis. Stern’s main message, and they missed it, is that it is going to be more expensive to do nothing or too little than to take the appropriate action. Business will not be usual and Stern says inaction will cost us roughly 20 times as much as early concerted and co-ordinated action.
In this post I’d like to have a look at whether substantial cuts by 2050 are warranted, and in a second post look at some of the obvious practical measures that might be taken to achieve such cuts. Let’s remind ourselves of some of the targets.
National Labor is suggesting 60% cuts from 1990 emissions, whereas the Labor states have committed to 60% of 2000.
The Greens new policy (pdf) suggests 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 and 30% by 2020 with “a rolling five-year national energy budget”.
The EU are going for 20% by 2020 and 30% if other developed nations join the party.
Germany would be proposing the higher target to the G8, but will be thwarted by US recalcitrance. Radio reports I heard at the time of the G8 plus 5 environment ministers meeting stressed that China and India were not the slightest bit interested in curbing their lust for coal unless the developed countries cut their own emissions and paid them for the adoption of renewable energy solutions. It looks as though nuclear might get the nod, however.
Britain looks set to go for 60% by 2050 on 1990 levels, 26% by 2020 with statutory 5-year targets.
California has targeted 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, with other states joining in to some degree.
Two Norwegian scientists have gone for 80% below 2000 levels for 2050, with 95% cuts for the rich countries (on grounds of equity, no doubt).
George Monbiot’s Heat but he suggests 90% by 2030 if we really want to stop the planet from frying, and suggests it can be done “without bringing civilisation to an end.”? Please note: his specific calculation for Britain is 87%, for Australia it’s 94%
The metrics of the overall problem are actually quite simple. The scope of the problem is outlined very clearly in Chapter 8 of the Stern Review (download from here). Current emissions were running at 42 GtCO2e each year in 2000. We need to get that down to below 5 GtCO2e*, which is the absorption capacity of the planet.
Ideally we need to get them down to 5 GtCO2e* tomorrow. For a sustainable planet our irresponsibility has been gross in the extreme.
In practical terms, then, it’s urgent that we start reducing immediately because what goes up stays up. The later we start the more savage our annual cuts need to be and the more likely that we will overshoot.
In terms of carbon in the air, we are currently at about 430 ppm CO2e (CO2e means the CO2 equivalent of the so-called Kyoto greenhouse gases) and increasing at 2.7 ppm each year. Stern would clearly like to stabilise at 450 ppm, but he thinks it’s probably beyond us.
With 450 ppm we would only have a 5 – 20% chance of exceeding a 3C rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels (remember 2C plus is considered dangerous). With 550 ppm stabilisation the chance of 3C plus goes up to 30 – 70%. If you want to see what 3C means look at Figure 2 on page 5 of Stern’s Executive Summary (pdf). The coral reefs would have no chance and we’d be well into major species extinction, partial or complete collapse of the Amazonian rainforests, irreversible melting of Greenland but perhaps not yet the flooding of major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
According to Stern, for 550 ppm stabilisation emissions need to peak about 2015 and then reduce by 1% each year. Leave it another 10 years and we’ll overshoot for sure.
For 450 ppm stabilisation, emissions need to peak within 10 years and then fall by 5% per year, reaching 70% below current levels by 2050.
I would point out that 80% off 42 GtCO2e gives 8.4, still above the 5 GtCO2e* that the planet can absorb, remembering that GW is predicted to damage that absorption capacity. I can’t actually find the 1990 figure, but I suspect 80% off that figure would still see us short.
Given that 450 ppm stabilisation targets a 2C temperature increase, which brings the risk of significant positive feedbacks and runaway effects, I’d suggest George Monbiot’s plan warrants close attention. All the other targets carry too much risk.
Meanwhile we should be looking for a prime minister who understands that we need to live and work within a frame of ecological and biophysical sustainability. As Paul Norton so eloquently put it:
the ecological imperative must take priority, and economic and social goals redefined to be attainable within what ecosystems will allow.
Conclusion: The 60% by 2050 target is not ideology. In terms of science, it is inadequate if we want to stabilise GHG levels and the climate in a manner that does not risk a severe discontinuity with the world we know.
[* That should have read 5 Gt carbon or 18.35 GtCO2e. The error came from a typo in the Stern Review (and the annoying practice of stating emissions in terms of CO2 and absorption as carbon.) More recent science would indicate that long-term emissions should be zero for 280 ppm and a safe climate. Brian, April 2009 ]