Solve climate change for under a billion dollars? It sounds like such a bargain that even Prime Minister Tony Abbott might pay attention.

The Climate Change Authority, a key government advisory body, has today handed down its final report on how far Australia should go to address global warming. The verdict is we should do much more: namely, reduce emissions by 19% by 2020.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

That’s if you include the “spare emissions” left over from Australia’s gaming of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol process. If those are set aside, the CCA wants a 15% reduction (that’s on 2000 levels).

Compare this to Abbott’s target to reduce emissions by 5% by 2020 — and to let that target drop if it’s not met by his Direct Action scheme. The CCA has branded that target “inadequate”.

But while the CCA wants us to do much more on global warming, it’s suggested a bargain-basement escape route that would allow Australia to meet the more ambitious target for an extra cost of just $200 million to $850 million (peanuts in the scheme of things). Some conservationists will see this option as cheating. More on that later.

The CCA is an independent statutory body set up by Labor, under chair (and former Reserve Bank governor and superannuation identity) Bernie Fraser. Check out the board here. It’s separate to the old Climate Commission, which has become the Climate Council — that’s Tim Flannery’s mob.

The Coalition government wants to scrap the CCA, and legislation is in Parliament to do so. That will probably be passed when the new Senate sits from July, so the CCA faces closure. It does have other tasks it is supposed to go on with now this report is out, like reviewing the Carbon Farming Initiative. Fraser was asked about his body’s closure in a Canberra press conference today; “we’re always hopeful, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” he said.

The CCA is staffed by experts, is respected within the field, and has done plenty of research on this report, working with bodies around the world. Critics accuse the CCA of being Labor / Green-leaning. After all, Left-leaning public intellectual Clive Hamilton is on the board.

It’s unlikely that Abbott would pay much attention to — or read — this 401-page report. It recommends a completely different course of action to the one he wants to take on climate change. Abbott wants to scrap the carbon price, water down the Renewable Energy Target, and bring in a government grant scheme to pay polluters to cut their emissions (i.e. Direct Action).

The question is not whether the Abbott government will take this report on board — it won’t — but whether the Coalition government can continue to get away with dismissing the growing body of domestic and international evidence that Australia is not doing enough on climate change.

Fraser hinted that this report may not be embraced by the government, telling reporters today his hope was it would contribute to a lasting consensus on climate change, “down the track if not immediately”.

Turning to the CCA’s report in detail, it found:

“Based on all the evidence available to it, the Authority concludes that Australia’s 5 per cent target is inadequate … It would leave an improbably large task for future Australians to make a fair contribution to global efforts.”

The report’s authors researched the climate science and the latest global emissions data, finding “a reasonable contribution” from Australia would be a 15% reduction in emissions. A complicating factor is that Australia has some spare pollution in the bank, so to speak. Australia negotiated a target to significantly increase emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, and our emissions for that period were actually less than the target. The CCA noted that if those spare permits were carried over — and it’s not clear if that will happen — then the 2020 target should be a 19% reduction.

And watch out. As the CCA report implies, if Australia sticks with the 5% target, and carries over the Kyoto credits, we’ve pretty much made that target already, without the government having to do much in terms of policy. The business of gaming global climate talks and pacts is a busy one, put it that way.

Technically Australia has a bipartisan target to reduce emissions by 5-25% by 2020 depending on what other countries do, but you won’t hear Abbott talk of any target more ambitious than 5%. Interestingly, the CCA found some of the conditions to bring in a 15% target have been met, but not the conditions for the 25% target. The Greens may not like that.

The report also calls for a 2030 target to reduce emissions by 40-60%. We don’t currently have a 2030 target, and that one is pretty ambitious.

Here’s another point of controversy. The CCA is vague on how to meet the emissions targets (that wasn’t its main task), but does recommend carbon pricing, regulations, standards, and emissions standards for cars (many countries have those). And “to bridge the gap” between what all that could achieve and the CCA’s targets, it recommends buying dirt-cheap emissions permits from overseas. It describes these as “genuine emissions reductions”. Not everyone agrees.

The UN’s at-times controversial Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows buyers to pay entities in poorer countries to reduce emissions by doing things like building wind farms and hydro plants. China has swamped the production side and there aren’t a lot of buyers, so prices are rock bottom — currently just 46 Australian cents per tonne for CO2, compared with Australia’s current $23 carbon price.

The CCA calculated that moving from a 5% target to the CCA’s target would cost $210 million to $850 million if that were done entirely through buying CDM permits. The authority recommends the government set up a fund to start doing this.

It sounds too good to be true, and for some it is. The CDM system has had governance and verification issues and at times has amounted to paying for “hot air” permits, although some of the dodginess has been weeded out. To its critics, it amounts to rich countries paying poorer ones for projects they would do anyway, as a way for rich countries to get out of reducing emissions at home.

But a positive of relying on cheap global credits, as CCA chief executive Anthea Harris told the press conference today, is that the economic impact on living standards and businesses in Australia of reducing emissions would be less. “We need to put things in perspective,” Harris said, adding that some business groups might claim the CCA’s more ambitious emissions target would be “the death of the economy as we know it”. That would not be the case, Harris said. Fraser told the press conference that buying global credits was “the only way of getting there,” in reference to the CCA’s targets.

Australia’s actual emissions (the grey line) and the CCA’s targets for emissions (the blue line) expressed as a 2020 and 2030 target

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%