Let’s get realistic about reducing carbon emissions

ON Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a summary of its report for policymakers. It will reinforce the view among many scientists and policymakers that a great deal of the increase in air temperature that the world has experienced, until recently, is due to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The contribution remains contentious and its impact remains contentious.

What to do, if there is a problem, is especially contentious. How does a government frame policy in response to uncertainties of man-made climate change and its impact? What should the Abbott government do?

There are four camps in the debate: on the science there are climate change believers and climate change sceptics (and agnostics); and on the policy response there are abatement advocates and adaptation advocates.

For sceptics and agnostics, the only question is how much should be invested in adaptation beyond “situation normal”.

Among believers, however, there are those who advocate abatement and those who advocate adaptation — either because it is too late or because there are no viable options, or because the magnitude of change is not expected to be great.

Writing in The Weekend Australian, Judith Curry, chair of the school of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, stated that the politicisation of climate science, including explicit policy advocacy by some IPCC scientists, and the consensus-building process are sources of bias.

Curry recommends that the scientific consensus-seeking process be abandoned in favour of presenting arguments for and against.

This would be a refreshing change, one argued for by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. The NIPCC is a foil to the IPCC. It independently evaluates the impact of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide on Earth’s climate and biosphere, and computer projections of possible future effects.

On the basis of its reading of the science, the NIPCC asserts that the IPCC prescriptions, in effect, condemn many to poverty by raising the cost of energy, exaggerate the impact on weather and understate the benefits of warmer days and better growing conditions (see the recent book Taxing Air by Bob Carter).

Matt Ridley, writing in The Wall Street Journal on September 13, observed that “most experts believe that warming of less than 2C from pre-industrial levels will result in no net economic and ecological damage”.

He predicts that the new IPCC report will effectively say (based on mid-range IPCC emissions scenarios) that there is a better than 50-50 chance that by 2083 the benefits of climate change will outweigh the harm.

Right now, believer-abaters rule the policy roost. Hence, policy insists on a price on emissions. Labor wants a tax; the Coalition wants direct action, funded by the taxpayer. Each hopes (and prays) that lifting the cost of emissions will reduce output. Each wants to reduce year 2000 levels of emission by at least 5 per cent by 2020.

For pricing to be successful there has to be a pay-off, and the only pay-off that counts is a reduction in global temperature caused by man-made warming.

The likeliest scenario for emissions in the next few decades is that world energy consumption will grow by 56 per cent between 2010 and 2040.

World energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will rise from 31 billion tonnes in 2010 to 45 billion tonnes in 2040, a 46 per cent increase (International Energy Outlook 2013, US). There is little prospect of any pay-off from the abatement strategy.

Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that global warming is happening but argues that “in climate science no one ever talks about the data that disagrees” that global warming theory is real.

He believes that the vehemence of views held by the IPCC has harmed its standing, especially the misrepresentation of data, so much so that he has called for IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri to resign. The IPCC performance has probably increased the numbers in the adaptation camp.

Most important, Muller argues that nothing can be done to stop climate change.

Believer-adapters are the swing players and, in cahoots with sceptics and agnostics, may be the coming force in the debate. Only time will solve the science; meanwhile government must proceed on the basis of risk and reward. There is no chance of abatement working and geo-engineering solutions are some way off. Indeed, under most scenarios, neither will they be required for decades.

Adaptation pulls on board sceptics and believers alike. It is possible to both abate and adapt, but the balance must shift decisively to adaptation. The job of the Abbott government is to pull back on abatement, including direct action, and expand adaptation. History shows that mankind’s great strength is adaptation and that politics is the art of the possible.