As we head towards the Garnaut Review team’s recommendations on carbon pollution reduction targets for Australia it is important to put in context the comment from Crikey yesterday (Wednesday item 1 “Garnaut target falls desperately short“) that “a 15% reduction would lead to stabilisation at a carbon dioxide concentration of 450 ppm and a temperature rise of at least 2-2.4 degrees”.

We may see an argument that such a target would be in line with a 450ppm-e target but the problem is that it would be a target out of whack with the global climate realpolitik.

In the negotiations of what “differentiated responsibilities” mean for various countries targets a number of factors are at play. It is not enough to rely on distributing the numbers on projected emissions and population growth alone. Deeply embedded in the negotiations are also principles that historical responsibility and capacity to act (economic and social health) are also relevant.

These factors were part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) estimates when it suggested ranges for developed and developing countries commitments.

Recent UN reviews of factors that could be used to determine developed country commitments also highlighted that population growth by itself is not a good indicator of a nations emission reduction potential. For example, the scope for energy efficiency improvement and access to low emission energy sources are among the many factors that will influence a nation’s ability to reduce emissions.

Thankfully, Australia is blessed with massive energy efficiency potential and low emission technology sources. Even with factoring increases in population, our recent Carbon Pollution Reduction Potential scenario highlights how Australia could achieve at least a 25 % reduction from domestic sources alone, i.e. even without some of the international emissions trading flexibility mechanisms which will be part of any post 2012 agreement.

What the IPCC said for the 445 to 490 ppm scenario was that developed countries as a group would need to reduce 1990 levels by 25 to 40% by 2020. It is a global political reality that the 25 to 40% range was included in the Bali Roadmap for the developed countries to consider as they set targets under Kyoto Protocol Mark II. Developed and developing countries alike will look to the way countries mount an argument of how they can help achieve that range. A table on the IPCC projections for different ranges can be found in our recent paper on Climate Impacts and Emissions Targets.

In the Climate Institute’s view, Australia signaling a weak target of a 15% reduction would weaken global momentum towards the ambitious global action that is in our national interest.

As The Garnaut Review has noted, Australia’s interests lie in the most ambitious targets for global pollution levels. Setting an, at best, 15% target would be well short of the ambition, and the ability, of Australia. Even more importantly it would risk our international credibility in helping to shape a global solution so vital to our long term national interest.