When Kevin Rudd approached Ross Garnaut last year, he clearly wanted two things. One was a convenient excuse, “waiting for Garnaut”, for not announcing key climate policies in the lead up to the election. The second was an economist’s analysis of climate policy, sidelining the cental question of what cuts climate science says we actually need.

In other words, in the face of global catastrophe, he was expecting a “we shall fight them on the beaches depending on a lengthy economic analysis of how many troops we can afford to dispatch at this time.” How fascinating to see Rudd now distancing himself from Garnaut, nervous that Garnaut will say “we should fight them on the beaches with everything we’ve got, because not to do so is unthinkable.”

Garnaut began as a conservative economist, but it seems that he is now coming to understand the science and is foreshadowing recommendations that are making the Government extremely uncomfortable. But if the noises being made by this conservative economist are making Rudd and Co nervous, they are way behind the current science.

Garnaut is right to say that climate change is so urgent that, if we don’t act by 2020, the game is over. But today’s statement that he is only modeling trajectories for stabilising atmospheric concentrations of CO2e at 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm) show that he hasn’t digested the even greater urgency provided by the latest science.

Last year there was record Arctic ice melt, discovery of a reduction in the oceans’ capacity to absorb our carbon pollution, and the revelation that global emissions are increasing faster than the IPCC’s worst projections. Put these together, and the risks of even 450 ppm triggering runaway climate change are far too great, while 550 ppm should simply not be on the table. Instead of modeling 550 ppm, the Review should look at how to stabilise at 400 ppm or less as quickly as possible, to give us the best chance possible of maintaining a liveable climate. Certainly this will be extremely difficult, but this is no time for defeatism – we need a clear-eyed assessment of what is required.

We have no time to waste. Garnaut has already made it clear that we need deep cuts fast. We do not need to wait for his final report to take immediate action to substantially reduce emissions in the fastest and cheapest ways. As the Greens have identified for years, and the McKinsey Report reiterated last week, rapid implementation of energy efficiency and stopping land clearance and native forest logging are no brainers. As we put those sectors on target, we need to look at everything else.

Now that Rudd’s has a solid indication of the direction the Garnaut is heading in, his government’s first Budget must start this process by looking at all the anti-inflationary savings that can be made which will help cut greenhouse emissions. He will be judged, above all, on whether Australia’s emissions keep rising or whether 2008 is the year they peak and finally begin to fall.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey