Last Friday the Garnaut Review handed a massive leadership challenge to the Prime Minister, other political leaders and business by appearing to back a strategy which risks the death of the Great Barrier Reef as we know it, and threaten “the economic base of the communities of the Murray Darling.”

Anyone backing Australian adoption of a weak global negotiating position, of just 10 per cent reductions in carbon pollution off 1990 levels by 2020, needs to explain to Australians why we should back a strategy which risks these outcomes. A strategy which also threatens to leave us a high carbon economic backwater.

Almost overlooked in the “argy-bargy” is the fact the Garnaut Review is recommending Australian endorsement of a negotiating range including a 25 per cent reduction target by 2020. The Review recommended:

…that Australia commit itself to a goal of stabilising emissions at 450 ppm, and express its willingness to play its proportionate part [25 per cent reduction by 2020] in an effective global agreement to achieve this outcome.

This should indeed be our top priority, and it would be a bizarre negotiating strategy that quits on this prospect at this delicate stage of global climate negotiations. Whilst clearly and repeatedly stating that this 450ppm target is in our national interest, the Garnaut Review floats the possibility of first heading towards 550ppm, via a 10 per cent Australian target, with later global negotiations tracking to the 450ppm.

The Garnaut Review’s reasoning that the best strategy towards a 450ppm outcome is via a 550ppm trajectory is extremely risky and an unnecessarily pre-emptive global political judgement.

Last year a detailed analysis of pollution trajectories published by experts from the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded that after 2015 “there are no pathways that initially follow 550 ppm … and can turn into a 450 ppm pathway later on.”

It’s important to remember that the Copenhagen talks are aiming to conclude an agreement for climate action from 2012 after the end of the first Kyoto period. It is unrealistic to believe that just two or three years after one global agreement we can turn around and negotiate a new agreement. Outside of this it may require massive implementation of technologies as yet undiscovered or just on the drawing board to suck, at industrial scales, carbon out of the atmosphere.

And why should we quit on achieving 450ppm from the outset? The Review’s reluctant conclusion rests on concerns about developed and particularly developing country capacity for action.

Yet there is significant movement on the global stage from developing countries and some developed countries as we await the scale of US intervention. Developing country movement in the last 12 months has been extraordinary, starting with their historic agreement in Bali to measurable commitments and subsequently with a range of growing commitments.

The Garnaut Review notes the considerable policies emerging already, and mostly unilaterally, in China. But there has also been new commitments and initiatives in South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa which weeks ago joined European, and many other countries aiming to keep global warming to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels — a level almost certainly to be breached by 550ppm stabilisation.

The capacity for clean energy and clean technology development in developed and developing countries is a direct function of the polices and targets set. Stronger targets will drive stronger innovation. This was brought home earlier this week when international climate investor James Cameron, co-founder of British-based investment banking group Climate Change Capital, said Australia could “miss the boat” on millions of dollars of investment if the Government accepted the recommendation of a 10% cut in emissions levels by 2020 and it’s relatively low and long term carbon price.

So a soft start strategy is not only dangerous to the planet but also dangerously likely to risk locking Australia into a still highly polluting economy without unlocking our capacity for innovation and competiveness in the clean energy and clean technologies which will truly be the growth markets of the 21st century.

Australia shouldn’t quit on Reef and the Murray Darling. Australia should not quit protecting future generations from dangerous global climate impacts. Australia shouldn’t quit on clean tech investment. Australia shouldn’t quit on the 450 first strategy.