The economic report card on the costs of climate change written by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern – The Stern Review – has landed. All 700 pages of it. The juicy bits had largely already spilled in the days leading up to the report’s release, and last night both the ABC and SBS ran the story under the cute line “Stern Warning”. How could you resist?

The significance of the Stern Review, commissioned by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, is that it translates the climate change issue into the fundamental language understood by governments, the language John Howard has previously adopted when defending the Coalition’s stance. In short, how much will it cost?

The key conclusion getting a run is that the impacts of climate change could shave 20% off global economic consumption in future assuming BAU (business as usual) emissions. It’s worth noting that this is the worst case scenario, the best being 5%. But given the stakes involved (not just dollars, but lives and livelihoods, particularly among the poor), sensible strategic planning should rightly be based on worst case scenarios.

The cost of stabilising CO2 equivalent at 550ppm by 2050, by contrast, is estimated at around 1%. To many (me included), that’s way too much carbon – the review eschews the more climatically sensible target of 450ppm (involving a 70% reduction in emissions by 2050) by simply concluding that it is ‘almost out of reach’. There must still necessarily be large impacts associated with this. This might be addressed somewhere in those 700 pages, but I’m no speed reader.

What are the implications for the Howard government? By now at least the climate change rhetoric is bipartisan, and for the most part, the review doesn’t contradict the government’s spin. It discusses the need for both a global solution and a diverse energy portfolio, explicitly citing the necessity of carbon capture and sequestration technologies as part of the solution. Sounds familiar. The Howard government’s objection to Kyoto has always been that it doesn’t include the big developing emitters, and yesterday in parliament Howard had this to say:

The only things that will ever replace the current dirty power stations are cleaner uses of fossil fuel, or nuclear power. You will never replace them with solar or wind.

If that’s true it’s a real shame, because neither of these resources is renewable, so sooner or later the lights must inevitably go out. But whatever one thinks of these technologies, the failure to name targets is the most glaring hole in the government’s purported commitment on the issue, and the Stern review at least demolishes the economic arguments – the final pillar of the broader debate – for not doing so.