In the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend, Professor Tim Flannery attacked the Liberals and the Greens for their positions on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), calling them liars and stating that their claims are “just plain wrong”. In the interests of an honest and accurate debate, I decided to see whether I could find any errors or untruths in Flannery’s article. It wasn’t hard. After extracting the errors, there is not much left of the article. Set out below are details of his biggest howlers (in the order they appear in the article).

Claim: “If implemented, it [the CPRS] would see Australia emitting 5 per cent less greenhouse gas in 2020 than it did in 2000”.

Fact: Wrong. If the CPRS was introduced with a 5% target, Australia’s emissions would probably increase. However, Australia’s net emissions — domestic emissions less imported offset credits — would decline. Provided the imported credits represent actual abatement, they will not undermine the environmental integrity of Australia’s target. Yet the extent to which these credits will represent actual abatement is still uncertain and, to a large extent, will depend on the outcomes from the current international negotiations.

Claim: Nicholas Stern’s analysis suggests that “humanity is set to be emitting 48 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2020 – up a mere billion tonnes from today’s 47 billion tonnes”.

Fact: Wrong on two fronts. First, Flannery uses incorrect units. Current emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are about 36 billion tonnes (Gt), not 47 Gt. He presumably meant emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e).

Second, Stern’s analysis does not show that “humanity is set to be emitting” 48 GtCO2-e by 2020. Flannery refers to a recent article by Stern in the New York Review of Books as his source. The full details of Stern’s analysis are contained in a paper co-authored by Chris Taylor (a senior economist in the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change) that was published in March 2010 by the Grantham Research Institute and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy.

The paper concludes that global emissions are likely to be 48.2 GtCO2-e in 2020 but only if all countries adopt and achieve their highest targets, no surplus emissions allowances are carried over from the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, there is no double counting of mitigation commitments, the rules regarding terrestrial carbon do not weaken the level of ambition and economic development in developing countries follows current expectations.

These caveats on Stern and Taylor’s projections are of critical importance, a point they stress. Combined, the caveats almost represent the difference between the projected 48.2 GtCO2-e and emissions under “business-as-usual” conditions. And to suggest that all of these areas of uncertainty are going to fall in favour of a strong mitigation outcome is extremely optimistic; some might say delusional. Even if the analysis is confined to whether all countries will adopt their high-end target, it takes an eternal optimist to believe the international negotiations are headed for this sort of outcome. For example, Australia’s target range is 5%-25% reductions below 2000 levels by 2020. Yet discussion of Australia going beyond 15% has all but dried up. Similar dynamics are playing out in other developed and developing countries.

Claim: “To avoid dangerous climate change (a warming of less than 2 degrees) we need to reduce emissions to about 44 billion tonnes by 2020. This could be achieved if Europe agrees on its planned 30 per cent target rather than the current 20 per cent, and the US and other developed nations increase their own targets by a few percentage points”.

Fact: Wrong. Stern and Taylor’s conditional estimate of 48 GtCO2-e already assumes Europe and every other party that has a conditional pledge adopts and implements their high-end target. Stern makes this point in his article in the New York Review of Books when he states, “If countries deliver their ‘high intention’ reductions, the plans submitted to the Copenhagen Accord would result in global annual emissions of about 48 billion metric tones of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2020”.

To bring global emissions down to 44 GtCO2-e in 2020, both developed and developing countries need to raise their pledges significantly — a few percentage points within the current range is not enough. For developed countries, the pledges currently add up to cuts of between 10%-14% below 1990 levels. As analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown, to provide a realistic chance of keeping warming to 2°C, the aggregate reduction in developed countries has to be greater than 25%. Current pledges fall well short of what is required.

Claim: “If Australia increased its target from 5 per cent to between 7 per cent and 15 per cent, we could rightly say we were contributing our fair share to the global target. This is a far cry from the Greens’ unrealistic demands for 25 per cent to 40 per cent cuts.”

Fact: What constitutes a “fair” contribution to a 2°C outcome is subjective and there is no universally accepted method for “equitably” distributing the global abatement burden among countries. Having said that, the notion that Australia could adopt a target of 7% for 2020 and say it is making a fair contribution is difficult to defend. Under Flannery’s approach, Australia’s per capita emissions in 2020 would be almost three times larger than Europe’s and four times the global average. Other developed countries are unlikely to accept such a low target, to say nothing of developing countries.

Claim: The CPRS is one of the emissions trading schemes “with the fewest give-aways of free permits” in the world, “with 70 per cent to be auctioned”.

Fact: In the early years of the CPRS, the proportion of free permits issued to coal-generators and emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries would be about 30%. However, by 2020, the proportion of free permits allocated to these industries would rise to about 50%.

Claim: “The Greens argue that allowing industry to offset emissions into forestry and agriculture is a kind of get-out-of-jail card for polluters. Again, this is not true. Offsets into agriculture will have to be real, and will come at a cost”.

Fact: The rules regarding terrestrial carbon offsets have yet to be determined for the post-2012 international climate regime and the CPRS. Therefore, it is impossible at this stage to say whether these offsets “will have to be real”. Under the present international regime, one of the main issues with terrestrial carbon offsets is “additionality” — the offsets often do not represented an actual decrease in emissions or increase in removals beyond what would have occurred under normal circumstances.

Claim: Emissions trading schemes do not impose any costs on the economy. In Flannery’s words “It is increasingly clear only one thing changes when emissions trading schemes are introduced — the level of emissions”.

Fact: Wrong. The only way this could be correct is if there was a limitless supply of zero cost abatement. If there was, we would not need an emissions trading scheme.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey