Crunch time for carbon sceptics

That’s the title of my piece on the passing of the carbon price/tax legislation, in Thursday’s Fin. It’s over the fold

Crunch time for carbon sceptics

Australia finally has the price on carbon first proposed by John Howard in 2007. Although passage of the Clean Energy Act by the Senate was little more than a formality, it has already changed the terms of debate.

Every day that passes from now on will put the advocates of denial, delusion and delay in a less and less tenable position. While denouncing mainstream science as ‘alarmist’, this group, has long predicted that a carbon price will bring about an economic disaster. As recently as this July, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell predicted a ‘carbon catastrophe’, a prediction echoed by rightwing think tanks and commentators.

But now that the carbon price is in place, these predictions will be put to the test. With less than eight months to go before the policy is implemented, anyone who seriously believed these claims should be predicting an immediate collapse in investment, and acting accordingly. But among the postmodernists who pass for conservative thinkers in Australia today, any such notion of intellectual consistency is obsolete and old-fashioned.

Already, those who once predicted economic disaster are walking those predictions back. Tony Abbott’s website, for example, states that ‘On the Government’s own figures, three million Australian households will be worse off under the carbon tax.’ Since Abbott doesn’t challenge those figures, he presumably accepts the corollary that the other 5 million households will be better off. Abbott has to fall back on the rather desperate claim that ‘while the tax will increase in the future, the compensation won’t’, a claim that does not suggest much confidence in his own electoral prospects.

Meanwhile, the scientific evidence continues to mount up. A striking recent example was the publication of a report by a team led by one of the few serious scientists sceptical of the mainstream view, Richard Muller. With strong support from other self-described ‘sceptics’, Muller and his team undertook a reanalysis of climate data using 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations. Somewhat to his surprise, his results were an almost perfect match for those already reported by climate scientists.

The reaction of the ‘sceptics’ was revealing. Without exception, they rushed to denounce Muller. Clearly the term ‘sceptic’ is inappropriate here. These are ‘true disbelievers’, who will never be convinced by evidence of any kind.

Of course, as those who urged a do-nothing stance on Australia never ceased to point out, we are a small country, accounting around 2 per cent of total emissions. Our efforts will make only a modest difference. The big emitters like the US, China and India are far more important.

None of these countries is likely to introduce an explicit carbon price any time soon. That’s unfortunate, since an economy-wide carbon price is a much more cost-effective way of reducing than the direct action to which Tony Abbott is supposedly committed.

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging developments. In October, without much fanfare, China introduced a nationwide feed-in tariff for solar photovoltaic electric power. China has apparently learned the lesson of many other governments, including that of India, which offered high feed-in tariffs on a limited basis, only to see their schemes massively oversubscribed. The tariff has been set at 1 RMB (about 15 cents) per kilowatt hour. If solar PV can be delivered to the grid at that price, the economic cost of transition to a low carbon economy will be far below current estimates.

Meanwhile the US is taking the direct action route. New fuel efficiency standards announced by President Obama in July will require that fuel consumption of new cars is reduced to an average 54.5 miles per gallon (4.3 l/100km) by 2025. And in the next few weeks, the Environmental Protection Authority will announced regulations limiting CO2 emissions from power stations. These measures should ensure that the recent decline in US emissions continues into the future.

As in Australia, a change in government may see these steps reversed. But, also as in Australia, the intellectual collapse of the right is reflected in political confusion. The disarray in the Republican Presidential field reflects the fact that any candidate who is even minimally serious about the issues is unacceptable to the Republican base. Obama now beats all the Republican contenders in ‘match-up’ polls, though he would lose to a ‘generic Republican’ if only one could be found.

If the world had moved a decade ago, we would now be well on the way to stabilising the global climate. There is still time to achieve that goal at moderate economic cost. Australia, at last, has taken its first big step along that path.

142 thoughts on “Crunch time for carbon sceptics

  1. Sam, do I think the 30% vs. 80% comparison is flawed? No, not at all. Consider the two following possibilities. Harry Potter offers to wave his magic wand and either cause world CO2 emissions to reduce by 80%, or keep emissions as they are now but magically freeze the earth’s population at its current seven billion until whatever point it may have dropped below seven billion anyway. Obviously the 80% reduction in emissions is far more effective at stabilizing climate than reducing the world’s peak population by 30 or so percent. In fact, eliminating population growth without reducing emissions doesn’t stabilize climate change at all and we will eventually lose all icecaps and much of the world’s currently most valuable land end up under sea level.

    Now an immediate 80% cut in emissions is unrealistic, by so is an immediate freeze in population growth. It’s plain to see that cutting emissions wins wands down.

    You may be making a more nuanced arguement than this, and there are other things I’d like to discuss, but at the moment the Justice League is signalling me on my immense wall screen, so I have to give up my secret identity for now and fly.

  2. I’m back, crisis averted.

    Sam, you say that at a cost of under $10 a ton population control is the cheapest way to reduce emissions. This isn’t true. I’m not arguing about the cost you give. I have doubts about it, but I’ll accept it for now. But a lot of CO2 abatement not only costs less than ten dollars a ton, it actually makes money. While the carbon price in Australi will start at $23 a ton of CO2, that’s not the cost of abating each ton. It simply means that people will use methods to reduce emissions that cost up to $23 a ton. The average price will be much lower. And there are plenty of ways to reduce emissions that are actually money makers. For example, a light coloured roof costs as much as a dark coloured one but can save hundreds of dollars, or for a large building, thousands of dollars in air conditioning costs a year. A sliding tax that encourages people to buy more fuel efficient cars ends up saving them money each time they buy fuel. A change in building standards can result in much greater energy savings than costs. So if the cost of reducing emissions through population control is $9 per ton of CO2, then there are still plenty of options that are even cheaper. I’m not saying that $9 a ton isn’t a good price, I’m saying it’s not the cheapest option.

  3. Fair enough Ronald. I’m not against those things, but I suspect there aren’t enough such projects cheaper than $10 a tonne to make a serious dent in our emissions. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them of course. I’m completely in favour of present arrangements to price carbon and the proposed price of $23. I just think that when the trading scheme comes into effect, population offsets should be offered at something like their real price. The market can then sort which permits are actually purchased.

  4. Sam: sorry, maybe I missed this before – you’re proposing a don’t-have-a-baby bonus?

    That’s a really good idea, especially if nations with low per capita carbon emission could also be persuaded to offer it (why? because that’s where immigrants to the west, with our high-carbon lifestyles, come from).

    I used to discuss the carrying capacity of the earth with my human geography student housemate. He reckoned that the carrying capacity of the earth was something like two billion (he has a kid now, haha).

    However, again the negative population growth thing conflicts with the prerogatives of economic growth, and for that reason I can’t see it being widely introduced. Imagine what the Oz would say.

  5. @Dan
    Hi Dan, no I wasn’t thinking of such a thing, but it’s an interesting idea. There are two ways to reduce the birth rate: reduce desired family size, or reduce unmet need for contraception.

    The former is a very culturally complex task. It requires a structural change in the way men and women negotiate relationships, and a deep understanding of societal context. Great care must be taken to avoid a pro-natalist backlash like in India. These are the kinds of things Western donor countries have historically been terrible at. The latter on the other hand is a very simple technical task. We buy condoms, oral contraceptive pills, etc, ship them to the country and offer them free to couples who say they want it.

    Even better, we simply supplement existing family planning programs (State or NGO run). Nothing could be simpler, cheaper, or less coercive than that. Desired family size is falling virtually everywhere anyway; Western countries only have to keep up with demand.

    I think discussions of carrying capacity and warnings of doom by Paul Erlich types can be a bit counter-productive politically. A much better political frame is the following; The Earth can support many more people than it does now. So long as we’re prepared to put up with a Fukushima every now and then, live like vegetarians in rural India, and turn all our forests into farms we can probably keep growing to 20 billion.

    In actual fact most people don’t want to live like this, and so couples are choosing smaller families than ever before. Median projections see stabilisation at between 9 and 10 billion people. With heroic advances in technology, unprecedented international co-operation, Western curtailment of resource intensive lifestyles, and the sacrifice of a few more iconic species, people in 2080 might be just OK. Any reduction below this level though, would take pressure off all these requirements.

    So family planning is an investment opportunity, and one with huge future pay-offs for almost everything we care about. it’s a once-off though, by 2030 global TFR will fall to replacement and all the cheap population control projects will disappear. So let’s put everything we have into this once-in-a-lifetime deal!

    PS, now that the paywall is up, no one reads the Oz these days. A great day for democracy.

  6. Sam,

    I just read part of the Oz (it’s a slow Friday arvo here in Perth). Interesting that they and the Guardian are predicting different conclusions from the imminent IPCC report:

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/climate/review-fails-to-support-climate-change-link/story-e6frg6xf-1226198360121

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/17/ipcc-climate-change-extreme-weather

    Unfortunately, unless the “governments” drafting the summary for policymakers make their conclusion abso-bloody-lutely clear, this has the potential to be another debacle with both sides saying “Ah, but, it says here……” Not so much “crunch time” as “Seconds out, Round 53”

    Is it too much to hope that this, together with the BEST results, will be the double whammy which ends this so-called confected “debate”?

  7. @AndrewD
    I agree with the substance of what you’re saying AndrewD. As a dedicated couch potato though, I must admit to being a bit confused by your sports metaphors.

  8. Sam :
    PS, now that the paywall is up, no one reads the Oz these days. A great day for democracy.

    But a terrible day for our coffee room’s incredulity and hilarity quotient. Every silver lining…

  9. @Dan
    “‘Gillard fails again’ – analysts. Plus, check out our Health section, ‘why the Labor party gives you cancer.'”

    Sorry Dennis Shanahan, I would like to decline your offer to pay for this kind of news.

  10. Pay wall?

    Australian’s have always wished for a way to make quick and easy donations directly to Rupert. Now we have it.

  11. Rupert and his offspring are not responsible for anything that appears in his newspapers. Haven’t you listened to the evidence provided in Britain?

    He, James and other members of the clan are always the last to know. Even after the public and everyone else. When they find out they are even more shocked (and saddened) than we are. Well worth the millions in salary and bonuses, they are.

  12. Do you think Rupert would use medical help – testosterone injections and probably those cognitive enhancing drugs – to help him cope with the ducking and weaving, as well as the empire building?

    And he’s got those longevity genes, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100112165234.htm

    Longevity genes come from the mother I think I read the other day – can’t find a link for this assumption – but Rupert’s mum is holding up pretty well for her age.

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