Climate fears “tempered”

You may have seen the news over the weekend that the peak scientific body studying climate change, the IPCC, has reduced it’s worst case scenarios for climate change.

After reading the piece, I think you could be excused for thinking that this is really good news and the pressure is off.

In 2001, the scientists predicted temperature rises of between 1.4C and 5.8C on current levels by 2100, but better science has led them to adjust this to a narrower band of between 2C and 4.5C.

The basic gist of the piece is that if we can contain the CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in the atmosphere to the same that they are today, the minimum temperature rise will be 2°C.

Sounds ok, right? Actually, a 2°C rise is the generally accepted threshold before global warming becomes “really dangerous”. And even at 2°C, we will see significant impacts on our planet, affecting many, many people.

What is also important is that population growth (estimated at around 25 million by 2050) and growth in economic activity will place upward pressure on energy consumption – i.e. we will be using a lot more energy than we are now (50% growth by 2020 according to the government). This means that under a “no action” position our emissions are expected to grow significantly.

It is vital that we start to introduce renewable and lower-emissions technologies to generate our energy to keep the atmospheric CO2 levels at their current levels. As the ACF says in the Australian piece:

Australian Conservation Foundation energy program manager Erwin Jackson said the projections required an urgent and immediate response from the federal Government to drive accelerated investment in low-emissions technology in Australia.

“Every day we delay taking action, the problem gets worse,” Mr Jackson said.

“The Government keeps throwing up the costs of action but totally ignores the costs of inaction.

Later in the article:

A recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics report on the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions estimated Australians would incur a fall in real wages of about 20 per cent if the nation was to unilaterally cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

Note the “unilaterally cut”. I read that to mean ‘outside international mechanisms such as the Kyoto protocol’. If my reading is correct, I suspect that the high cost is a result of our inability to take advantage of the carbon trading mechanisms that Kyoto, and potentially other future international schemes, provide. In other words, by choosing not to sign Kyoto, as Howard has done, the Australian government is putting our economy at risk.

But even if my reading is incorrect, a recent report produced by AGL, Frontier Economics and WWF-Australia came to a quite different conclusion. From the media release related to the report (excuse the technical language):

The study shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector could be limited to between $5.19 billion net present value (NPV) and $24.16 billion NPV, depending upon the reduction pathway chosen. This represents a one-off cost of between $250 NPV and $1,172 NPV per Australian today, or 43 cents – $2.00 per person per week to 2030.

Emphasis mine. What does that mean? Well – the report estimates that the total cost to the Australian economy would be a maximum of $2 per person per week. Or less than one coffee.

To be clear, the report doesn’t suggest that we each individually have to spend that money – just that the effect of change won’t cost the economy as much as some are suggesting.

But regardless of the scenarios, the longer we wait to act the more expensive reductions become. The environment minister goes on to say:

“It highlights the need for an effective global response to climate change as Australia alone cannot alter the pattern of world emissions,” Senator Campbell said.

“We are taking a leading role internationally to achieve effective engagement by all major greenhouse gas-emitting countries.”

It is true that a global response is required (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol). It’s also true that major emitters need to engage (e.g. Australia – the biggest per-capita emitters in the world – and the U.S. – with the biggest total emissions in the world – not signing the Kyoto Protocol).

But, for the government, “effective engagement” seems to mean doing very little at all. The AP6 agreement, which I can only assume is what the minister is referring to, will result in a doubling of Australia’s emissions by 2050. Does that sound like an “effective response” to you?

What does all this mean, then? It means that despite the apparent “good news” on the weekend, nothing has really changed – we still need serious action from the government, businesses and people to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. And we need to remain vigilant and continue working towards a sustainable future.

Update 2006-09-05: Via Andrew Bartlett I came across John Quiggen’s take on the same article.

In the comments “carbonsink” says:

Anyone who has actually read the ABARE report can tell you that ABARE examined six scenarios, most of which show significant reductions in GHG emissions with minimal impacts on the economy. The Oz has plucked the scariest number from most extreme ABARE scenarios and presented it as the likely impact of any attempt to reduce GHG emissions.

The fact is, ABARE’s modelling shows that significant reductions could be achieved with just a 0.07% percentage point reduction in the annual rate of GDP growth

Update 2006-09-07: Seems that the report doesn’t even say what the Australian article suggests. That’s the impression I get from reviewing some of the commentary in the links in another post by John Quiggen at Crooked Timber. Tim Lambert’s explanation is probably the most clear.