Time to fire up climate debate again Opinion Article

Oct 25, 2013 - 9:03am

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 25 October, 2013. 

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute

The recent bushfires offer an opportunity to reboot the conversation we have been having around climate. It is not just about the challenges of putting a price and limit on heat trapping carbon pollution – a policy endorsed again by OECD, IMF and World Bank in recent weeks. It is also about how to deal with the cost of carbon and the climate change it is driving. The fires, their cost and the remarkable but resource intensive response remind us that this is a question of risk. 

The scale of the challenge, as well as its politicisation, has overshadowed sober discussion or seen it put into the too hard basket. 

However, once you accept climate change is real, as to his credit the Prime Minister has, you need to get into analysing the risks.  Business does this every day in areas like workplace health and safety. There the test applied is: do employers have their “eyes wide open” to the risks and then plan to not only manage those risks but also to reduce those risks.

Australia can’t pretend there are no real risks with remaining as a high carbon economy.

Australia has joined other countries, including the US and China, in agreeing that avoiding 2 degrees is in our national and collective interests. All are on a 2015 timetable to achieve a UN legal agreement towards that goal. It is why both of our political parties support 2020 emission reductions of 5 per cent to 25 per cent below 2000 levels. The Climate Institute and others such as the ANU and Professor Garnaut, see the 25 per cent reduction target as a fair contribution towards avoiding 2 degree warming.

However, as the IPCC recently reminded, us we are on track towards at least 4 degrees warming by the end of the century if action isn’t taken promptly.  Proper risk management should have integration of both the 2 and 4 degree warming scenarios in planning, as well as in approval and resourcing decisions. Why should the taxpayer support massive investments in long lived infrastructure if it won’t stack up in these very realistic scenarios? 

The World Bank has published on the significant and perhaps uncontrollable impacts at 4 degrees. But CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and others warn of very severe impacts at 2 degrees warming for Australia, including 4 to 5 times more very extreme fire days and up to 50 per cent less irrigated value output from Murray Darling. 

A proper risk-based approach, even for those not completely sold on the climate science, would support managing the risks better with 2 and 4 degrees scenarios integration, but also have a plan to reduce the risks with an ability to achieve up to 25 per cent reductions, significantly declining thereafter.

The OECD chief Angel Gurria, hardly a partisan zealot, pointed out a couple of weeks ago the importance of avoiding two degrees warming and the need for a decarbonised global economy by the second half of the century. Australia can’t pretend there are no real risks with remaining as a high carbon economy.

John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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