What the world is doing now to try and prevent devastating climate change just isn’t enough. In fact, it isn’t even close. And that has serious implications for Australia.

In a new paper of critical importance titled “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research state, among other things:

It is increasingly unlikely that an early and explicit global climate change agreement or collective ad hoc national mitigation policies will deliver the urgent and dramatic reversal in emission trends necessary for stabilization at 450 ppmv [parts per million by volume] CO2-e. Similarly, the mainstream climate change agenda is far removed from the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilize at 550 ppmv CO2-e. Given the reluctance, at virtually all levels, to openly engage with the unprecedented scale of both current emissions and their associated growth rates, even an optimistic interpretation of the current framing of climate change implies that stabilization much below 650 ppmv CO2-e is improbable.

And … “Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emission trends and a commitment to ‘limiting average global temperature increases to below 4 degrees C above pre-industrial levels’, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.”

While precise ice melt lag effects are difficult to estimate, a rise of atmospheric CO2-e to 550 ppmv, higher than the level at which the Greenland and east Antarctica ice sheets formed, renders many metres-scale sea level rise through the 21st century inevitable.

As the world’s premier coal exporter, enjoying one of the highest per-capita income, Australia faces what the Garnaut Report described as a “diabolic policy problem”, though the administered remedy, 10% emission reduction relative to 2000 by 2020, can be described at best as symbolic.

Carbon sequestration is a costly too-little-too-late method which can only serve as a small part of the effort of arresting the rise of atmospheric CO2 levels, currently by 2.2 ppm per year. Analogous to the fate of the Australian Synroc project for the storage of high-level radioactive waste underground, developed in the 1970s but never applied on a large scale, to date billions of gallons of rad-waste continue to leak toxic substance, for example 440 billion gallons disposed into the ground and Columbia River.

Alternatively the Rudd government may follow the EU’s 40% emission target, which would still allow CO2 levels to rise above 450 ppm, temperatures above 2 degrees C leading to potential tipping points, and sea levels by many metres.

One year ago an ALP government was elected on a popular perception of a high moral ground of its leaders, including promised “evidence based policies” and adoption of measures at effective climate mitigation. An acceptance of a token 10% emission reduction target would render this critical commitment a “non-core promise”.

There are still two years for the present government to assume a leading international role in fast-tracking a transition to non-polluting energy. The risk of losing the next elections is a minor risk if, by that time, urgent climate mitigation measures have commenced, for the sake of the young and future generations.

Not to decide is to decide.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey