Tim Flannery, what’s your first reaction to the Ross Garnaut’s Targets and Trajectories report, released today?

I think it’s pretty competent piece of work. It’s the framing of it that might lead to some debate. If I was asked to do something like that I don’t think I could do any better.

As far as a first step goes toward reaching a target of 60% by 2050, how does this report stack up?

I have never read a better basis for addressing this problem from a government or a government sponsored agency than Garnaut. I’ve read a lot of stuff and there is nothing better. I think it is the most considered, flexible, and effective approach we’ve got. That doesn’t mean it’s good enough, but on my reading of it, it is outstanding.

How do you rate the targets Garnaut has arrived at, and the reasoning behind them?

What he does is frame Australia’s response in terms of a projected global outcome. And in a way, that’s what you have to do with this. You have to project what you think will happen internationally, because that will affect the relative cost you pay. So you don’t want to be moving so fast that you destroy your cost competitiveness, but you want to be moving fast enough to encourage engagement at the international level. What he’s done is set some targets which will see Australia play its role in the world reaching an emissions reduction of 60% by 2050. The interim targets are all framed around that. If you think that’s a reasonable target, you’ve got your answer.

But the big questions is, what does a 60% reduction get us? He does try to cover on this. He says that 60% will get you a world with 550 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. But the science says that actually gets us nothing. The science says we should be aiming at 350ppm. There’s some recent scientific work done, which is very convincing in my view, that suggests the sensitivity of the climate system is about twice as great as previously thought. Garnaut has used the IPCC report as the basis of everything that he does, and he has taken the median projection of that report. That projection suggests that you’ll get a temperature rise of less than 2 degrees at 550ppm.

But there’s really strong evidence now that that is wrong. We are going to be much more aggressive in cutting than that. Garnaut is open to that possibility, but he is constrained by the world’s view on this.

What sort of consideration has Garnaut given to the impact of an emissions trading scheme on some emissions intensive industries?

I don’t think he has taken into account the special pleading of industry. His overall objective was to frame something that was realistically implementable, and that means you can’t shut down coal overnight. But if you want to get a sense of what’s happening in the world, just go to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre and have a look at the indicators and have a look at the cryospheric climate indicators. You’ll see that the real world changes day by day and you’ll see that what we think today will be different in five years’ time.

What Garnaut is doing is incredibly important but my view is that in the next five or 10 years we are going to see a significant phase shift in terms of climate system which will send people scrambling. It will be evident to people at that point that we are facing a very urgent and immediate crisis. At that point we are not going to be thinking about trading schemes or anything. Government are going to be saying, “You close that factory down, or we’ll have to ration.” People will be scrambling to save the cities of Shanghai and London.

The political debate and the economic response is all premised on those IPCC projections, which say there is a problem for our grandchildren. The emerging science says it is going to happen soon. This is our problem. And only extremely rigorous action is our hope of turning things around. I respect Garnaut enormously but I think in five or 10 or 15 years’ time the landscape will be different.

In putting Australia’s response in a global context, what sort of assumptions has Garnaut made about how nations like China and India are going to react to the problem of lowering greenhouse gas emissions?

He assumes that they will accept binding targets. The initial part of the emissions abatement will have to be done by the west and so the developing point will be free to emit up to a certain point. When we get to a point where we have reduced our emissions and their emissions have grown to around half ours, they should accept a binding target. Then we should start on a per capita emissions target which takes us into a safe zone. And it is the only fair and equitable way to go about this. But as I say, it could all be thrown out the window if in a decade from now we have a catastrophic loss of the Greenland ice caps. Then it’s all emergency stations.