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Tuesday 1 December 2015

Hot Air?

Last Friday, precisely timed for maximum impact before the start of the Climate Change(CC) talk-fest in Paris, Bill Shorten announced ALP's greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction policy. The new target is a reduction of 45% from 2005 levels by 2030, a dramatic increase over the Governments measly 26%.

What was he thinking? "Captures the imagination... and the headlines.", "Almost double the promises of the goverment! That should stop the erosion of votes to the Greens", "It will surely take the gloss off Turnbull's 'Green' credentials"

The reaction, however may have put a lie to these hopes. Ignoring for the moment the ecstatic acclaim from the strong CC adherents who react with rapturous applause to any increase in commitments, the reaction from the man-in-the-street has been one of quiet indifference. The long battle for hearts and minds in the CC arena has desensitized us. Too many warnings of impending disaster which have failed to come to fruition. Rain filling our reservoirs, climate models' failure in predicting the 18 year pause in temperature increases, and the Antarctic ice growing year by year have left us, lets just say, less reactive.

That leaves the commentariat, that pervasive potpourri of press and professors who manage our thoughts day by day. If there is one word to describe their reaction it is skepticism. No applause, just questions, "What will this cost?", "Why bid more than the major emitters?" , "Why pick a fight on an issue you are unlikely to win?", "Why does the ALP want to make CC an election battleground when it has lost this battle in the past?" and again"What will this cost?"

But this is no joke

While one can take comfort from the observation that it is most unlikely that Mr 15% will have the problem of putting such a policy into practice, this is serious. Any commitment to significant reductions is expensive. Shorten's commitment comes to a cost of $30B /year by 2030 compared to Turnbull's already significant $18B. Such commitments should not be taken lightly, especially when it could be based on borrowed money!

There is little doubt that every nation fully realizes the very significant costs entailed by reduction targets. Why else would the targets be so hotly disputed!

Australia in perspective

Mr 15%'s puff of Hot Air is mere breath compared to what is being unleashed on Paris over the next two weeks. The awesome gathering is a mega-event in which no emissions were spared in ensuring every well meaning environmentalist worth his credentials would attend.

So what are we to make of Australia's targets compared to those of the rest of the world and in particular the largest emitters of the world.

In the lead up to COP21, as the event is affectionately known, countries were encouraged to submit their reduction targets in the period from the expiry in 2020 of their last commitment to 2030. It seemed a good idea at the time, try to establish some bidding war, with countries trying to out-do each other to win 'noble' prizes. To some extent it may have worked, as it was encouraged by a cacophony from the cheering crowds of CC adherents.

However it also had the effect of motivating the more canny countries to be less direct, more convoluted in their commitments. Instead of reduction targets stated as a simple "reduction in emissions below the level at say 2005 by 2030" we have a number of alternative forms of commitment, commitments to reach 'Peak' emissions at some time in the future, or to reduce the "carbon intensity of the economy". The result is a diverse range of commitments making them impossible to compare.

The Problems with Paris

Before taking a look at the top CC culprits, let me take issue with the approach being taken in Paris. The idea that each country nominates what they are willing to pledge is counter-productive. You end up with the potpourri of commitments determined by each country's political climate rather than what is required to limit global warming to the desired 2 degree rise.

A much cleaner approach would have been to;-
  1. Identify and agree what total world reduction is to be made by the end of the century then narrow it down to 2030
  2. Identify and agree what is the equitable proportion of the world contribution each country should make
  3. Set the resulting figures as the target for each country
I also take issue with the use of simple 'emission rates' without accounting for trade and without looking at cumulative historical emissions. I have already rabbited on about these issues at length in my interminable series on "Seeking a Fair Reduction target" (parts 1,2,3,4,5), so will leave it to the interested reader to read these earlier posts.

The pledge parade

The table below provides some perspective on the problem at hand. It shows the top 20 contributors to global warming over the period from industrialization (~1880) to 2005.

Table 1: Top 20 contributors to CC from ~1880 - 2005

This is not a list of countries with the highest annual emission rates. This is a list of the 20 countries that have contributed most to global warming between ~1880-2005, and taking into consideration the impact of trade, ie the carbon content of exports have been transferred to the importing country. Admittedly 2005 is a full decade ago, but that is the most recent figure readily available (see Seeking a fair GHG reduction target - Part 5: Who is responsible? ). No doubt the figures have changed since then, my guess is that China has moved up the list.  The table also shows the pledges most of the countries have made in the lead up to the Paris conference. These were taken from http://climateactiontracker.org/

Pledges by the top 5

The US has committed, to the extent that a lame-duck president in his final year can commit, to a 30% reduction in annual emissions below 2005 levels by 2025.
Brazil has committed to 37% below their 2005 level by 2030.
Russia has submitted a 25-30% reduction below 1990, in strong contrast to reports that Putin believes Global Warming is a fraud.
India committed to reduce emissions intensity by 33-35% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Figure 1 ; China is the largest annual emitter by a large margin

Now for the elephant in the room, China. China has committed to peak its emissions by 2030 and then reduce its carbon intensity by 60% by 2030.  Putting carbon intensity aside, China's bid is sheer chutzpah, With already by far the greatest emission rate , virtually double that of the US (see Figure 1 above), China is not committing to reduce its emissions at all. In fact it will continue to increase them for the next 15 years!
Figure 2 China's per capita emissions are the same as Europe's

China's argument that it is just catching up in the global emissions stakes is no longer true. Its per capita emission rate are equal to that of Europe (see Figure 2) and as evidence in Table 1 it has already been responsible for a significant portion of global warming to date. Incidentally this is partially true for both India and Brazil who also argue that they are only now going through the industrialization that was enjoyed by the developed world without emissions restrictions and therefore they too want to have their 'free emissions'. Alas the figures indicate this is not the case. These countries for various reasons have been major contributors to the global warming to date, therefore they need to get on board and start mitigating their emissions.

Australia's commitment of  26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 is modest. However we do have a good record of meeting and exceeding our commitments, in contrast with many other countries. So this counts in our favor.  Also our emissions rate and ,in particular, our per capita emissions rate, do not tell the whole story. With a small population spread on a large continent with 20% forested area, Australia is a net absorber of GHGs and is helping to clean the emissions of the more populated countries.

Irrespective of the merits of these arguments we are small fry, some 19th in our contribution to global warming. Our annual emissions are dwarfed by China's. Indeed our total emissions are less than the annual growth in China's emissions.

Without real commitments and consequent action by China and India to reduce their emission all other pledges including Turnbull's 26%, or were it to come to pass, Shorten's heroic 45% will come to naught. Indeed without China and India making real commitments the Paris conference will turn out to be just hot air.

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