“There is a chance, just a chance that humanity will act in time and in ways that reduce the risks of climate change to acceptable levels.”

Ross Garnaut again shows that he understands what is at stake, and how slim are the prospects that we can avert catastrophe. He tells us that international agreement to solve climate change is harder that multilateral trade negotiations, and they have just collapsed.

Garnaut believes we need to “keep hopes alive… until all opportunities for progress have been exhausted”, yet in both its tone and weak recommendations Garnaut’s latest report is one of barely concealed despair.

What does Ross Garnaut see his job to be? Is it to tell the Government what the science says we must do in order to avert climate chaos, or is it to advise the Government on what seems politically feasible?
The BCA signalled that it would be willing to accept a 10% target and that is what Garnaut recommends, suggesting his test of politically feasibility is that which the BCA will accept.

At the same time, Garnaut reminds us of the horrible futures spelled out in his previous report if we do ignore the science. So we have two reports in one. The tensions between the scientific objectives and political possibilities soon emerge.

  • The science demands cuts by developed countries of 25-40% by 2020, but Garnaut recommends 10% as the best that is politically achievable (5% if there is no agreement in Copenhagen).
  • Garnaut knows that aiming at stabilising CO2 concentrations even at 450 ppm is risky, and that we should be aiming at less then 400 ppm, yet he judges “reluctantly” that 450 ppm is not possible at this time and recommends we aim at 550 ppm, which all the science says would be calamitous.
    Garnaut knows that trust and leadership are essential if we are to get an effective international agreement, yet his recommendation would see Australia free-riding on other developed countries if the European view prevails at Copenhagen.

A global agreement requires resolution of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the necessary trust building takes time. But Garnaut also knows the rapid growth in emissions means we do not have time — “the world is rapidly approaching points at which high risks of dangerous climate change are no longer avoidable.”

Although he does not say it explicitly, the context in which Garnaut has framed his recommendations is his belief that the crucial Copenhagen conference next year will fail. He justifies the gap between his proposed policies and what the science demands by depicting the recommendations as the means of moving beyond the breakdown of global negotiations.

He argues that the building blocks for a new global agreement are not yet in place, either domestically, in countries like Australia where business is a long way from understanding what is needed, or internationally, where the legacy of suspicion (actively cultivated by the Howard and Bush governments) between developed and developing countries is too deep.

Instead Garnaut wants us to begin with small but effective actions — such as those he recommends in the report — in order to buy time and “begin building the foundations for effective collective action” after Copenhagen. This is how his recommendations are framed. When Copenhagen breaks down, he tells the Government, we should move to an emissions trading system with a modest 5% target but with a low, fixed price through to 2020.

Garnaut has discussed his report with Sir Nicholas Stern and it raises the question of whether Stern and the Brown Government also expect the Copenhagen conference to fail. Yet as Garnaut knows too well, we simply do not have an additional few years if we are to avoid crossing points of no return. Copenhagen is our last best shot, and should not be abandoned.

Europe has said it will commit to 30% by 2020 if the other rich countries show similar resolve. Japan will go a long way. Whether Obama or McCain wins, the United States Congress will for the first time be sympathetic to bold action. In the last two years, the G7 group of developing countries has shifted rapidly away from its defensive stance, and the Chinese leadership knows what is at stake.

The best we could hope for from Copenhagen may not avert disaster, but it’s too soon for despair.
In the end, Garnaut invests his hopes in the public. Bolstered by the “immense’ interest they have shown in the issue and their strong support for action, public insistence that governments act will be “the saving grace”, Garnaut says, the only chance that we can transform the impossible into a slim hope.

Public demands will only become the saving grace if the public is inspired to believe that we can succeed, yet Garnaut’s recommendation for soft policies can only dampen enthusiasm by hosing down expectations of what can be achieved. In the end it is the voice of the BCA that speaks through Garnaut’s report, not that of the people.

Peter Fray

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