No hurry on climate change targets

While it’s hardly a wedge in the traditional Howard style, the government has found itself somewhat caught out, at least in the public perception, by events in Bali.

During the election campaign, as you’ll recall, Labor – and Kevin Rudd specifically – were prepared to commit to 2050 targets for CO2 emissions. This is an important symbolic gesture, but the decisions that will have substantive impact over the political life of a Rudd government are shorter-term targets for 2020 or 2025. It’s not altogether surprising, given the potential for a scare campaign on the issue, that Rudd decided to make it go away temporarily by comissioning Ross Garnaut to do a report on the costs of various greenhouse reduction options before committing to a specific short-term target. However, at the Bali conference, the draft text for the joint statement has developed nations committing to a “25 to 40 % cut” in greenhouse emissions by 2020; unsurprisingly, Greenpeace and other environmental groups are telling Australia to adopt a target in this band domestically.

Frankly, the environmental groups are quite right that cuts on this scale are required – though achieving them in 12 years is going to be extremely tough unless we buy emissions credits from developing countries. But Labor probably deserves the benefit of the doubt on this issue for the moment. International negotiations being the way they are, there will be plenty of room for Australia to fudge its position for another few months until the Garnaut report comes out. And that report is almost certain to provide plenty of political cover to support ambitious and costly greenhouse gas reduction targets.

But the excuses run out after July. If there’s no serious action then, they will have betrayed those who voted for Labor on the basis that they’d do something about climate change, and they will deserve both barrels.

ELSEWHERE: Christine Milne at Greensblog is less forgiving; Nick Gruen compares the situation we find ourself in to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory.

Posted in environment, politics
35 comments on “No hurry on climate change targets
  1. Paul Burns says:

    Robert, all true. But we also voted for Rudd because he would actually do something about climate change, or as I prefer to call it because it gets rid of the euphemism, global warming. Going to Bali and acting as some kind of spoiler for the Americans and Canadians is not what we elected Rudd to do.
    Like you I’m holding fire at the minute, but I’n getting angrier at the ALP over this by the day.

  2. bahnischba says:

    Overall, I think there are two conditions that need to be met. One is to see serious commitments and action on the part of the developed countries before the developing countries will commit. Canada, Japan and the US seem to be playing a spoiling game here by saying that the big polluters amongst the developing countries will have to commit before they do.

    The second is that if we are going to limit warming to 2C global emissions need to peak by 2015, according to the IPCC report. A recent study showed that 73% of the increase this century came from the developing countries. Taking this into account, countries like Canada are absolutely right. There is no chance of achieving this aim if the large developing country polluters don’t accept limits.

    Peter Garrett (who was the first to speak to the press on hitting the ground in Bali) said that Australia intends to be “fair dinkum” about climate change. I’ve heard Wong, Rudd, Garnaut and the IPCC bloke talk about limits. The latter said specifically that not all countries would necessarily end up with targets within the 25-40% range. Wong, Rudd, Garrett and Garnaut are all speaking from the same page. They recognise the Bali process and the need for concrete numbers, but want to see how it all works through the Garnaut process before committing to a number.

    The problem, according to Clive Hamilton in Crikey, is that Australia’s team of officials, or some of them, are still pursuing Howard’s APEC dreams. But a “UNFCCC insider” explained that our Ambassador for the Environment had not had a briefing from the new government and was getting instructions via text messages during meetings. There was no briefing of the whole team.

    I think the problem here was in part that Garrett was the only one who could have given tham the briefing at this stage, and the international stuff doesn’t lie within his responsibility.

    Rudd is seeing the UNFCCC guy one on one later today, so hopefully they’ll sort something out.

    While I’m here, a comment on the Americans. They are going ahead with the second Bush bash of major polluters in a couple of month’s time. There may be a tendency to wait Bush’s passing, but it’s not as simple as that. He can do a lot to shape things before he goes.

    Also there was an article in the Fin Review saying that Clinton and Obama, if I read correctly, had put out a joint ticket adopting 30% cuts by 2050. That won’t cut the mustard. Edwards is going for 80%, but he probably won’t be elected.

  3. Guy says:

    I agree that Labor deserves the benefit of the doubt for the moment. I think it would be somewhat foolish, or at least pre-emptive for Rudd to commit Australia to targets before understanding precisely (hopefully via Garnaut) what targets are achievable for Australia in the short-term and how much it is going to cost.

    I think that process-wise, this is probably the most sensible way to approach it. It’s not the most courageous method, but the risk that the government (and by association, the country) could fall flat on its face because it committed itself before its own review was complete is not to be sneezed at.

  4. Vee says:

    Not really because most didn’t vote because Labor would act on Climate Change. Only a slim minority would have done that.

    Everyone is push, push, pushing Rudd. I believe in an attempt to make him a mistake so the media has a story. Rudd is yet to fall for it, he knows his primary duty is to Australia and secondary to the World. He needs to move cautiously on Climate Change to gradually convince the sceptics that the actions taken will not have any outrageous negative effects.

    Paul, I thought Climate Change was the euphemism for Global Warming, not the other way around.

  5. Brian, Hillary supports an 80 percent cut by 2050, as has Obama.

    Vee: historically, climate change was dreamed up by Frank Luntz as a euphemism. It’s been adopted more widely because it’s not just a simple matter of warming, but it does underplay the seriousness of the issue. As to your point on climate change, even if 1% of the population changed from the Coalition to Labor primarily on this issue, that’s extremely electorally significant.

  6. Tony D says:

    Global warming = net increase in temperature in the global system (the phrase is physics jargon). ‘Temperature’ has a scientific definition slightly different from the common, non-scientific meaning.

    Climate change = a change in climate, can occur as a result of global warming, global cooling or other.

  7. Paul Burns says:

    I think I said climate change was the euphemiosm, vee, Thanks for clarification, Tony D.

  8. John Greenfield says:

    Paul Burns

    Like you I’m holding fire at the minute, but I’n getting angrier at the ALP over this by the day.

    Quite right, too! After all, nobody likes to be revealed as a Useful Idiot while they are still on their honeymoon. 😉

  9. Tim Hollo says:

    Robert, the point is you have to differentiate between what the Bali negs are about and what the Garnaut review is about.

    Bali is about setting the framework for a post 2012 treaty. A key part of that, one would hope, is setting a target range for emissions reductions from rich countries within which the next 2 years of negs will take place.

    Garnaut is about looking at what Australia can and should do (albeit with a frustratingly conservative approach which sidelines the actual climate science).

    I fail to see the contradiction between Australia signing up to a global negotiating range for the next 2 years which is consistent with rather conservative science, and then saying that we’ll work out what Australia’s contribution to that will be later. Isn’t that the whole point??? If every country set their domestic targets before starting global negotiations, why would you have the global negs at all?

  10. Tim: because if we commit to a global negotiating range, it is inconceivable that our commitment will be lower than the minimum given our appalling history on the topic.

    We’d effectively be locking ourselves in to a minimum of 25 percent cuts by 2020. As you well know, that is an extremely challenging target, and one that will be costly, if less costly than the ghastly alternatives.

    The fact that we don’t have official estimates on how much that will cost is appalling, but be that as it may it is the situation we find ourself in. Therefore, I don’t think it unreasonable that the government is hesitant, at least publicly, about making such commitments until that question is answered.

  11. Chris Anderson says:

    Exactly Robert. It shows how primative and backward looking Howard et al ensured that the debaet on climate chaneg in this country is. We need some time to catch up to the quality of debate and commonly held information of a Europe.

  12. John Tracey says:

    Australia should be examining how is the best way to conform to emission targets set at Bali, not looking at whether the targets are realistic or appropriate.

    “Realistic” or “appropriate” should be determined by what is needed to prevent disaster, not what is comfortable to industry and economy.

    What does Garnaut know that world scientists or the U.N. do not know that could in any way challenge the minimalist 25 – 40% target? What needs to be seriously explored is how to do it, not whether to do it.

    It is clear that Rudd, like Howard, is not willing to upset the logging and coal industries or the U.S. This is the basis of Australia (and Canada and Japan) obstructing short term targets, nothing to do with any gaps in knowledge to be filled by Garnaut.

  13. pablo says:

    Brinkmanship is part and parcel of these international gatherings and Australia as the experience at Kyoto by Environment Minister Robert Hill attests, is very capable of leaving everyone waiting til the eleventh hour. So I guess I am willing to wait til the Bali talkfest is virtually ended before blaming Rudd for deceiving us. But didn’t he make an election promise of 20% renewables (no ‘clean coal’) by 2020? It doesn’t seem such a huge leap to 25 – 40% GHG cuts by the same date. You also wonder why Garnaut needs another 8 months to do our version of the Stern report. I get the impression he knows what Australia has to do and hopefully, experiencing the reality of Bali at Rudd’s elbow he can give the right wink and nod before the curtain comes down.

  14. It’s a massive difference, Pablo.

    Stationary energy makes up less than half of our energy use – electricity is the major part, but not all of that – and our energy use is growing by a percentage point or two each year. Therefore, an MRET of 20% of electricity use essentially equates to meeting growth from renewables rather than fossil fuels.

    40% emissions cuts would, roughly, equate to completely eliminating emissions from electricity generation by 2020 and holding everything else static.

  15. John Tracey says:


    Rudd has repeatedly said to the Australian media and community that he will not support targets at Bali. He is not holding his cards close to his chest as a brinkman would.

    It is more than brinkmanship, he has dug his heels in and told Australians, not Bali delegates, that he will not change his mind. He will look weak if he gives in now, he will be accused of flip-flopping which he would not want to happen so early in his term.

    Rudd has been consistent on this issue since he put Garrett in his box during the election campaign. The ALP has a track record allready with its support for the Tasmanian pulp mill.

    It is naive optimism to expect a last minute turn around.

    I hope I am proven wrong but I am not holding my breath.

  16. Paul Burns says:

    Unfortunately you won’t be proven wrong. So let it be on Rudd’s and the ALP’s head. They’ll cop heaps and deserve every bit of it. I’ve already written a stinging letter about this to my local paper which hopefully will be published next week.

  17. Tim Hollo says:

    Robert, I’m far more concerned that if Rudd helps to keep the target range out of the Bali Mandate, the final post 2012 agreement will be below that range than I am that agreeing to it would lock us into it.

    Do we want to do something about climate change or don’t we? That’s really the only relevant question and it frankly hurts to see that it’s not a question that is actually being asked out there at the moment. If we want to do something, then that target range is the absolute minimum we can afford to do. If we don’t think we can commit to that range, we’re effectively throwing up our hands and giving up.

    Sorry, kids, we stuffed up your planet. Ooops.

  18. Tim, the Bali mandate is in large part shadowboxing until we know who’s replacing George W. Bush.

    If somebody sane wins (and, on this topic, this means either a Democrat or McCain) the negotiations can begin for real.

    If we get another Republican nutcase, we may as well all just give up, go to the beach, and watch the tide roll in permanently.

  19. Tim Hollo says:

    But the groundwork needs to be laid now, Robert.

    Everyone knows that the US won’t come onboard until after Bush leaves. That’s obvious, so most people are largely sidelining them now. The G77+China, the developing countries bloc, are much more interested right now in the actions of countries like Australia, Canada and Japan. Unless we commit to playing a constructive role with solid 2020 targets (albeit with specific numbers still to be determined), why the hell should they sign up to anything at all? Canada are behaving badly, Japan are wavering. Australia could be very influential.

  20. Ambigulous says:

    John at 12

    I think Garnaut will be looking at economics, financing, industry, transport, electricity generation, agriculture, forestry, etc etc; in other words not pure science, but scientific hypotheses set in a social and industrial context…

    Is that more or less correct, Robert Merkel?

  21. Jenny says:

    I would like to see us leading with a bold commitment to 25%. i Don’t believe Garnaut’s can have any more credibility than a roulette wheel given the likely changes in clean energy technology over the next decade or two. If 25 – 40 is what the world needs to do, then we should go for it. We’ll find a way, and as one of the leaders, there’s every chance that we’ll gain a competitive advantage in the technology which will set us up for years of prosperity. The time has come to be bold.

  22. Jenny, even if all the new technologies required were available now (and a lot of it is still years away from commercial maturity, despite what its more optimistic backers claim), there’s a long, long lead time to implement it.

    The average age of the Australian vehicle fleet is roughly 10 years. Most of the new cars bought in 2007 will still be on the road in 2020. The construction cycle of wind farms is around six years in length. Power stations have a life span of half a century or more.

    If we’d started seriously a decade and a half ago, getting to where we need to be in 2020 would have been easy. Now it’s like turning round a supertanker.

  23. Ambigulous, terms of reference for the Garnaut Report are here.

  24. Thomarse says:

    Rudd committed to 20% of energy from renewables by 2020 in the campaign, IIRC, and never set a figure for emission reductions.

    The best, most productive thing he can do at Bali is drag the Chinese to the negotiating table.

    Bit early for emission targets just yet.

  25. philiptravers says:

    I maybe intellectually thick,but having been involved in anti-sawmilling logging debates and on the ball on a side on other issues of environment and humanity,but, not a well known face in the so called environmental movement…I am very glad I hear the skeptical voices from overseas about the Climate Change matters.It is pretty depressing taking on sawmillers at the best of times.Without bragging I was listened to,because my line was critical scientific and suggestive.Monash bridge builders met a Grafton sawmiller and liked each other.So I am very disappointed the arguments have gone from ecology to atmospheric matters,because there is still a lot of work to be done for good ecological reasons.Howard hasnt got complete critics on orang utans etc.Thats why I take the David Icke line seriously,because I worked behind the scenes,parachuted into enemy territory, as a Professional Forester described my activity and others,I hated that description.Australians should of taken the warning signals of the Al Gore presence,a ambitious lying man,from a clown of a land where the big loud mouth money and intellectuality drowns out real expertise on matters regularly.We have fallen for thinking our own science base is really deep,but Americans competing against each other will outdo us on a regular basis.Even though I am in flip flop mode flapping back to not believing this climate change matters at all,I still think the measurements need to continue,to maybe overcome local conditions of climate Australians dont want like drought outside the normative geophysical patterns.Clean energy systems are worth pursuing in themselves,and that I am supportive of.International relations cannot be built on scam like foundations..the presence of Gore,should of made the Bali leaders yawn excessively.

  26. John Tracey says:

    I wonder how Garnaut might be able to make any serious analysis of infrastructure reform if it does not have a proposed emission target to base the analysis on.

    I cant see any justification in waiting for a report that will primarily describe the consequences of inaction and the opportunities and relative (to inaction) risks in taking action, which is the bulk of the terms of reference.

    It seems the key issue blocking targets is the term of reference “The costs and benefits of Australia taking significant action to mitigate climate change ahead of competitor nations”

    The question that Rudd and the US are trying to avoid is giving any economic advantage to the developing world. This would result in a redistribution of the Earth’s resources and that is unthinkable.

    Rudd is calling for U.S. to sign up to the new agreement, which will be easy if there are no emission targets and global resource domination is unchallenged.

    The ALP’s policy is based on increasing the percentage of renewable energy, which is irrelevent if carbon emmissions are not reduced. Renewables might slow the growth of energy carbon emmissions but until coal is phased out emissions will continue to increase, not decrease – business as usual.

  27. Tim Hollo says:

    Robert, I’m baffled by your cynicism. (You may call it realism – most cynics do 😉 ).

    You’re obviously very interested in climate issues, and you’re a can-do techie kind of guy. Why do you have so little faith in human ingenuity as regards climate solutions?

    The way I see it, when I started uni, only 15 years ago, the internet was in its infancy, pretty much no-one had a mobile phone, and a few early adopters had email accounts. In little more time than we have between now and 2020, the world has changed so utterly that it’s hard to remember what it was like before. There’s a huge amount of tremendously expensive infrastructure been built, and new ways of living that have evolved, all because of human ingenuity and the fact that the ideas caught on.

    I know, coz we’ve done the figures and the policy work to get there, that with some pretty basic but ambitious energy efficiency measures we can achieve a full third of the cuts we need to meet a 30% 2020 target. If we go really ambitious with renewables over that time – and I’m talking ramp up to 30% or more, we can get close to halfway to the necessary cuts.

    Technically we can do much more than that. If we want to.

    In addition, we’ve got plenty of room to move swiftly on transport, agriculture, forestry, reafforestation, waste, fugitive emissions and various industrial processes. Small to medium shifts in each can get us there.

    I’m really concerned that so much of the discussion around climate is fixated on thinking about what we might be able to achieve and working backwards from there to determine the target. That is utterly the wrong way round and is doomed to failure. If that’s the attitude, we should just give up and focus on triage efforts. Instead, we need to set our targets and then use our brains to achieve them. I’m willing to be that if we do it that way, we’ll succeed.

  28. suzeoz says:

    There’s an emergency global petition to put pressure on the obstructive countries.

  29. bahnischba says:

    “The Garnaut review will report in mid-2008. Together with modelling underway in the Australian Treasury and also critically, informed by the science, this review will drive our decisions on short and medium term targets.

    “These will be real targets. These will be robust targets and they will be targets fully cognisant of the science.”

    That’s a quote from Rudd’s speech today (from PM) where he also took aim at the US.

    He also said this:

    “We expect all developed countries to embrace a further set of binding emissions targets and we need this meeting at Bali to map out the process and timeline in which this will happen.”

    Here’s Penny Wong:

    “The new negotiation should be inclusive in nature and work towards outcomes that are ambitious, comprehensive, equitable, have respect for national circumstances and provide flexibility in combating climate change,” she said.

    Here are some extracts from Clive Hamilton in today’s Crikey:

    While publicly denying it, senior members of the delegation are caucusing with Canada and Japan to water down the draft of the emerging Bali roadmap as well as taking obstructionist positions on a number of subsidiary issues.

    Quiet tete-a-tetes between senior Australian negotiators and fossil fuel lobbyists seem par for the course …

    I imagine that other delegations will work out what’s going on.

    In the long run I’m worried about Canada, who seem hell-bent on sabotaging the whole idea of targets. It’s possible the government won’t change there until 2011.

    On our target, a 25% cut would be from 1990, not from the plus 8% concession we won at Kyoto.

    Robert, thanks for the references to Hillary’s and Obama’s commitments. I can’t find the Fin Review article, but it was recent and was by Geoffrey Barker. He must have been wrong.

  30. Tim, I’m optimistic that we can eliminate virtually all our CO2 emissions over the coming decades.

    What I am not optimistic about is how quickly we can cut emissions, because decisions already made essentially lock us in to a high-emissions paths for some time to come. Yes, you can unscramble the rotten egg, but to really turn things around quickly is a project for WWII-style sacrifice, and I see no appetite for such moves just yet.

    As for my experience as a “can-do techie guy”, I’ve learned several things over the years: a) many promising technologies don’t deliver on their promise (how many of you talk to your computers rather than use a keyboard?) b) the process of shutting down old technology and replacing it with new is always far more protracted and drawn-out than optimists might predict, and c) betting on magic bullets to solve your problems is always risky; the corollary of this is that waiting on the perfect when we already have the good enough is a recipe for yet more pain.

  31. Ambigulous says:

    thanks for the Garnaut terms of reference link. By the way, I hear that methane is a MUCH more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, gram for gram.

    Methane comments:

    1) there is research proceeding in Victoria or reducing methane emission by dairy cows (no doubt elsewhere too)

    2) if we increase biogas pruduction (for fuel) but producers use much of the leftover biomass for cattle feed, then they could be converting plant C into horrible methane – and perhaps in net terms producing a worse greenhouse outcome than if we had used petroleum fuels in the first place….???

    Whaddaya reckon?

  32. Ambigulous: WRT point 2, keep in mind that any use of such feed will presumably displace other cattle feed, not result in the raising of more cattle.

    Brian: yes, Canada are a worry, but if Bush is replaced by somebody sane they’ll be left pretty isolated on the issue. I’ve just been looking into Rudy Guiliani’s position on climate change issues, by the way. It’s less insane than I feared; while he doesn’t mention it on his website, when he’s been asked questions on the issue he’s acknowledged that there needs to be substantial cuts in emissions.

  33. bahnischba says:

    Robert, I’ve found the AFR article. It was by Tony Wlker, not Geoffrey Barker. His point was that the Dems are not necessarily greener than the other lot wrt climate change.

    The quote was:

    Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama co-sponsored Senate legistaion to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent from 2000 to 2050, combined with a system of “tradeable allowances” – the so-called cap-and-trade” remedy.

    Which is compatible with adopting deeper cuts if/when either wins the presidency.

    Tim, Robert’s metaphor of turning a battle ship around is appropriate, I think. If Kyoto succeeds in flattening the growth graph in the Annexe 1 countries by 2012 it will be a very significant achievement and place them better to make cuts from there. The recalcitrant countries have all failed even to make a decent effort (Canada’s failure is spectacular) and are trying to save there arses to justify their inaction by changing the rules.

  34. Ambigulous says:

    Robert @ 32

    Fair point: so if cattle herd sizes don’t change, feeding them waste plant matter from a biofuels process just substitutes for feeding them pasture grass or grains. No net increase in methane production.


  35. Tim Hollo says:

    Of course, Gore said it far better than me. Here’s what he said on the question of setting targets based on what you think you can achieve:

    The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.

    That is just another way of saying that we have to expand the boundaries of what is possible. In the words of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, “Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.”

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