Climate action: the world is doing more than we think

We can rest assured,  Australia is not ahead of the pack on climate measures [28 August 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Producing 14.7 terawatt-hours in the first six months of 2011, Germany’s solar generation system is now responsible for 4.5 per cent of the country’s power needs. PHOTO ECO EVOLUTION

I’ll concede one point to the climate sceptics. There’s something surreal in the whole debate about man-made climate change.

Last week Australia’s Climate Commission released a report describing the efforts of governments to limit how much carbon dioxide we put into the air, so that our planet’s climate might be prevented from heating to unendurable levels.

Such a thing has never happened in all of human history. We’ve had doomsday scenarios since people first looked up to the sky. Many a scientist or storyteller has speculated about what might happen if worlds collide or the Martians invade.

But this is new, hard to get the head around. For the first time, national governments and scientific institutions have come to accept a global problem that’s real and present, as distinct from the prehistory or fiction we’ve been used to.

Our climate is changing, but so is our human world. The Climate Commission’s report brought together a myriad of emission-cutting actions around the world, and while it acknowledges big shortcomings in the global response, the sum total of so many actions is encouragingly large.

“Momentum is growing,” says the report, signed by the chief commissioner, Tim Flannery, and commissioners Roger Beale and Gerry Hueston. Among its findings:

• There’s global agreement that we need to act urgently to limit greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of warming. It’s also accepted that countries will need to become more ambitious, so that emissions reductions accelerate up to and beyond 2020.

• Ninety countries representing 90 per cent of the global economy have committed to cut emissions. In the absence of a full global treaty, success will depend on national efforts.

• Australia is a major player on the global scene. We’re the 15th-largest carbon emitter, larger than about 180 other countries, and one of the 20 countries contributing 75 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

• We’re also the largest emitter per person in the developed world. The average Australian produces emissions nearly five times that of the average Chinese person and 16 times that of the average person in India.

• Our influence abroad will depend on how successfully we manage things at home. Domestic success will encourage other countries and build momentum for necessary deeper cuts in the future. Failure would damage both our international reputation and the global effort generally.

• New technology isn’t essential to making progress — energy efficiency can deliver 65 per cent of emissions needed by 2035 — but investment in renewable fuel and power technologies has risen sixfold since 2004, with China and Korea among world leaders.

• Australia’s national interest demands that we tackle climate change. The sooner we reduce emissions the cheaper the reductions become and the greater the prospect of future prosperity for Australia from clean energy research and development.

The report likened the economic impact of delaying acting on climate to putting on the brakes in a car: “the earlier you apply them the more smoothly you will stop, the later you leave it the more disruptive the stop and the greater the risk that you will stop too late.”

As one of the world’s richest countries, both collectively and at the individual level, Australia’s success or failure will count for a great deal. The report says that our actions to cut emissions, including our carbon price scheme, are being closely watched by both developed and developing nations.

We need have no fear for our economy, says the report. Between 2000 and 2008, the growth rate of all the world’s 34 most developed national economies was higher than the rate of growth in their carbon dioxide emissions.

Over the same period one of these countries, Sweden, cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 per cent while its economy outperformed the seven biggest OECD economies.

Australia’s climate effort to date rates as no more than average on the global stage, according to three recent studies cited in the report. Our emission targets are broadly comparable to those of the US, Japan, Europe and China.

If investment in renewable technology is a guide, we’re hardly leading the pack. Global investment in renewable energy rose by 17 per cent to around $250 billion in 2011 — more than six times the level in 2004 .

If you compare available solar energy resources, Australia’s worst region (southwest Tasmania) is still better than Germany’s best, yet Germany is the world’s largest producer of energy from solar panels, with a generating capacity from installed panels 20 times that of Australia.

For all this, we continue to hear loud protests that Australia is moving too quickly, assuming too much, in putting its modest climate policies into place. The debate is clouding what ought to be a crystal-clear, bipartisan national vision.

Gerry Hueston, who had 34 years of experience in big business, most recently as BP Australasia president, before joining the Commission, believes the main obstacle to action is not apathy, but uncertainty.

If we could only stop and listen we might catch the sound commonsense in his message: “We all know we cannot live unsustainably. We must stop attacking each other and realise we are on the same side. We need to focus on what we agree on.”

• One of the great analysts of modern thought, Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul, was in Hobart yesterday to give a public lecture on “the reinvention of the world”. If you weren’t able to be present, a video will be posted on Channel UTAS.

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