That’s the Canberra Times headline for my latest article. It’s paywalled, and hasn’t yet gone up on Inside story, so the text is over the fold.
The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predictably grim, but in a sense, irrelevant. The scientific debate over climate change has been over for some time, and the reality of climate change is now evident for anyone who chooses to look.
Until about five years ago, debates on climate policy lined up extensive evidence of rising global temperatures and model predictions about worse things to come against statistical quibbles and “sceptical” arguments which came down to “scientists are always predicting disaster and it never happens”
But in 2021, we no longer need to look at models to see the disastrous impacts of climate change, arriving faster and causing more destruction than most of the modellers thought possible. For Australians, and many others around the world, climate change has emerged I the form of almost unstoppable bushfires. For those who have yet to feel climate change directly, the Covid pandemic provides life experience of long-predicted disaster that has turned out worse than most people thought possible.
Even this direct experience has turned out not to matter much. The New England area, represented in Parliament by Barnaby Joyce was devastated by fire in 2019. But that hasn’t shifted Joyce from a denialist/donothingist position and probably won’t cost him his seat at the next election. The same is true, in spades, of Covid. Conservatives who have seen friends and relatives die around them continue to insist that the whole thing is a hoax. There’s now a whole genre of stories (reminiscent of deathbed conversion narratives) where people dying of the disease finally urge their friends to get vaccinated, or, occasionally go their graves still denying everything.
But, despite all this resistance, we have collectively made enormous efforts to control Covid. We have, for the most part, accepted handwashing, social distancing, masks, travel restrictions and periodic lockdowns even while being unsure which measures will work and which will turn out to be unnecessary. Now that vaccines have become available, the majority of the population has rushed to protect themselves and everyone else. And there is increasingly little patience for the selfish or misguided minority who refuse, even when given every opportunity to get vaccinated. The only way to protect ourselves and our children from this group is by keeping them isolated from the rest of us, effectively continuing the same restrictions we have all gone through until now.
The contrast with climate change is striking. We know, from looking at successful examples, that we can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at costs too small to be detectable in the aggregate econoy. It’s easy enough to show that we could eliminate nearly all
By 2025, most European countries will have eliminated coal-fired electricity; several have already done so. The main policy instrument used to achieve this goal has been an emissions trading scheme which requires firms burning coal, iron or gas to buy a tradeable permit. The permit price was below 10euros/tonne for some years, but has now risen to 50euros/tonne. Since generating a megawatt-hour of electricity using coal emits roughly a tonne of carbon dioxide, the scheme effectively adds around … to the cost of coal-fired electricity, with a smaller effect on gas-fired electricity.
Since the emissions allowed under the scheme are currently around 1.5 billion tonnes, the annual value of permits used is around 75 billion euros, or around 0.5 per cent of total GDP in the EU. This value is not an economic loss, but a transfer from polluters to society as a whole. The actual economic cost is even smaller.
The same point can be illustrated by Australian experience. The short-lived carbon tax/price had a significant impact on emissions. But despite Tony Abbott’s claims about a ‘wrecking ball’ through the economy, neither the imposition of the tax nor its removal had any measurable effect on GDP or other measures of aggregate performance.
Ending coal is only a first step. But an extension of the same policies, for example, a doubling of the EU carbon price, would see a rapid replacement of gas-fired electricity with a combination of solar, wind, battery storage and other zero-carbon options. And even if the economic impact were quadrupled it would still be so small as to be undetectable against the background of ordinary economic fluctuations, let alone crises like the pandemic.
If the electricity supply were decarbonized, electrifying the vehicle fleet would eliminate emissions from road transport. Again, we have examples to show how easy this would be. Norway has committed to ending sales of internal combustion engines. Already, electric vehicles account for more than half of new car sales and around 20 per cent of the total car fleet. This outcome was achieved with a mix of fairly modest measures, such as exemptions from purchase taxes and parking fees. As the cost of electric vehicles has declined, some of the more generous measures have been scaled back.
A number of national governments have now committed to ending sales of internal combustion engines, and car manufacturers have announced plans to switch to production of electric vehicles. But current policies will leave lots of petrol and diesel vehicles on the road well past 2040. Incentives on the scale of those being offered in Norway, combined with a hard deadline on the removal of internal combustion vehicles from the roads, announced now, could put an end to transport-related emissions by 2035.
The main economic cost would be the scrapping of vehicles before the end of their usable life. But owners could be compensated with a version of the ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme used in the US a few years ago. This isn’t an elegant policy solution, but when we are faced with the prospect of destroying the global climate, we can’t afford to worry about such things.
Other policy responses, including drastic limits on air travel, might seem more draconian. But we have all put up with near-total bans on international travel, and lots of constraints on domestic travel, imposed with little or no notice in response to pandemic outbreaks. Replacing business travel with Zoom has turned out to be easy. As for recreational travel, a very simple response would be to replace frequent short ‘getaways’ with the longer holidays, taken once a year or less, that were normal in the 20th century. This would allow substitution of trains for planes in many cases.
We have more time to act on climate than we did on Covid. But that time is running out, and we are not using it well.