Garnaut: a victim of complacency and sleight-of-hand

Ross Garnaut’s review of climate options for Australia has been handicapped from the start by successive governments’ failure to give climate change policy the pre-eminence it deserves. [16 September 2008 | Peter Boyer]

It’s reasonable to attack Professor Ross Garnaut’s proposal for a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 10 per cent by 2020. But it’s unreasonable to attack the man himself, because years of political deception and complacency have put him in an impossible position.

We have cause to be disappointed. The reduction target is based on stabilising greenhouse gas levels at 550 parts per million, which scientists estimate would condemn the planet to a temperature rise above pre-industrial levels of well over two degrees and possibly as high as five degrees.

That level of warming makes for a very depressing outcome: dwindling food and water resources, more extreme weather conditions and massive geo-political upheaval in many parts of the world.

Garnaut’s low target allows politicians to put off facing the issues head-on. But a deeper analysis reveals that he is up against a chronic failure of government in this country to deal honestly with greenhouse gas emission data, and for that he has my sympathy.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the result of diplomatic manoeuvring to reach political consensus, is an inevitably flawed agreement that’s been exploited by past and present Australian governments to mask their complete failure to achieve physical results.

The Howard government assured us we were on track to meet Kyoto Protocol targets, as if this was in itself a desirable outcome. It disingenuously presented our Kyoto data as objective truth, a sort of climate change Bible. But what’s really disturbing is that the present government has continued this sleight-of-hand.

Some nifty diplomatic footwork at Kyoto, which gave Australia a 108 per cent “reduction” target, led to official government data that skews reality. Australian politicians, bureaucrats and special interests have been able to cite this data to “prove” that all’s well when this is patently untrue.

In fact, if you remove some questionable data on agriculture, forestry and land-use from the equation, Australia’s emissions have increased since 1990 by around 25 per cent. It’s against this backdrop that Garnaut’s interim targets should be assessed.

Stuck with a public misconception about our emissions, fed by faulty government data, Garnaut’s task is to turn a disturbing upward emissions trajectory into a cut.

His belief that a global agreement is an essential element in the mix is beyond dispute, but his counsel against Australia taking on an ambitious unilateral target in the absence of an adequate global agreement is more contentious. If the whole world took such a view, we’d get nowhere.

To his credit, Garnaut said he’d prefer that Australia commit to a 2020 greenhouse gas reduction target of 25 per cent while urgently seeking a global deal to stabilise levels at 450 parts per million. This still higher than the 350 parts per million that scientists say we need, but it’s much better than where we’re now headed.

Garnaut knows that the nine federal, state and territory governments that he serves will fear electoral retribution if the bar is set higher than their realpolitik allows – or if dodgy data on emissions is revealed for what it is.

They must put such fears aside. Australians are tired of politicians and economists dictating what can and can’t be achieved. In times past, when the chips have been down Australians have risen to the challenge. There’s every reason to believe that with strong, honest leadership we can do it again.

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