The Climate Change Authority report doesn’t tell us the half of it


The Climate Change Authority report doesn’t tell us the half of it

The CCA says that carbon emissions must be cut by 25% to stop the planet warming by 2°C. That’s still far less than the minimum necessary

Sunrise over Lake Pinaroo in Sturt National Park, outback Australia.
Sunrise over Lake Pinaroo in Sturt National Park, outback Australia. Photograph: Ashley Whitworth/Alamy

With the reality of a rapidly degrading climate coming home to people around Australia in the form of ever more extreme weather, it’s vital that we have the broadest possible debate about how fast and deep to cut the pollution that is driving it.

The Climate Change Authority fulfilled a hugely important role on Wednesday by smashing the comfortable agreement between Labor, Liberals and most commentators that we don’t need to talk about how much to cut our climate-changing carbon emissions. The Lib-Lab agreement around 5% cuts has turned the political debate into an unedifying spat over how we meet that target, a debate which the CCA has broken open today, calling 5% “not credible”.

The CCA is one of the most important innovations that Christine Milne and the Greens brought to the multi-party Climate Change Committee. Disagreement over how much and how fast to cut emissions was the central sticking point in those negotiations (and, by the way, the reason why the carbon pricing scheme starts with a fixed price period, or “carbon tax” – to allow time for further investigation and debate around targets before starting the trading scheme). Consequently, the proposal to establish a truly independent, science-based arbiter to recommend targets and budgets became the path to compromise.

It is both disappointing and problematic, then, that, as so often happens with these bodies, the CCA has allowed its view of the “politically acceptable” boundaries of 5-25% cuts to colour its recommendations. By performing this “preemptive buckle”, the CCA unfortunately damages the debate, narrowing its terms and shutting off the options for the deeper cuts that are necessary.

We must recognise the critical contribution to the debate of the CCA’s dismissal of 5% cuts as “inadequate” and “not credible”. That 5% is labelled “inconsistent with action toward the 2°C goal”, out of step with “the scale and pace of international action” and “likely to increase future costs” is important. But these arguments also show up the weakness of the recommended targets and trajectories.

The CCA presents two “options” for emissions trajectories: 15% below 2000 levels by 2020 matched with 35-50% by 2030, and 25% below 2000 levels by 2020 with 40%-50% cuts by 2030.

Let’s compare this with a report from the highly respected global analysts Ecofys (commissioned by WWF and released earlier this week), concluding that, for Australia to contribute our fair share to the kind of global emissions cuts necessary to give us a decent chance of staying below 2°C warming, we need to deliver 27-34% cuts by 2020, 82-101% by 2030 and 98-106% by 2050. In other words, far from being the outlier, 25% cuts by 2020 are below the minimum requirement. Beyond that, we essentially need to be net carbon neutral as a nation in two decades. This is hardly the first report to come to this conclusion.

The CCA’s 15% and 25% targets both clearly fail their own test of consistency “with action toward the 2°C goal”. In addition, the CCA’s 2020-2030 trajectories fail their own articulation of the need to cut faster sooner in order to reduce costs. Ecofys makes the mathematically obvious point that, since it is total carbon budgets which are the critical factor, the less we cut pollution now, the steeper we need to cut in the longer term. The CCA agrees, but then suggests matching weaker 2020 targets with weaker 2030 targets.

Of course, selection of targets and trajectories is not just a matter of science but also of geopolitics. And this is where we come to the CCA’s question of “the scale and pace of international action”. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the CCA’s recommended targets are based on the numbers currently on the table at international negotiations. The problem with that approach is that report after report has demonstrated that the numbers on the table are patently insufficient to prevent catastrophic destabilisation of the climate.

We know that we need a circuit breaker in international talks in order to get deeper and faster cuts on the table. China and India are already offering proportionally and historically more than they quite reasonably believe rich nations like Australia are offering. The only way Australia can contribute to global agreement is to ditch not just our 5% target, but also our 15 and 25% targets, and agree to move rapidly to net carbon neutrality as part of serious global emergency action.

Now I understand and recognise the irony and difficulty of making these points in the first weeks of an Abbott government. But, as Senator Wong has pointed out, climate change hasn’t stopped simply because Tony Abbott was elected. We need to keep debating climate action in Australia in the context of global reality. It is vital for that debate that we have the conversation about 5% being inadequate, but the science and the geopolitics are clear: far steeper targets are required in order for Australia to play any reasonable role in the global effort to keep warming to less than 2°C.

I say all this not in any way to belittle the efforts of the CCA. They are, of course, hardly the first institution to go down this path. Much of the debate within the environment movement over recent years has been between those who campaign for what the science demands and those who work for what they think might be achievable.

This is the fundamental question: what is it about our political culture, our democratic institutions, that makes us consciously and subconsciously limit our debate to what we think might be achievable, even when we know that to be insufficient?

And, more fundamentally still: can we avoid the looming catastrophe without breaking open those limits?

The need for truly independent, truly science-based advice is greater than ever. That is why it is so disappointing that the CCA’s actions today have provided one important service but another equally important disservice.

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