In late 2015 the CSIRO released its Australian National Outlook (ANO) Report ('the Report') which outlined 20 future scenarios for Australia, exploring various global and national sustainability challenges. The Report's main conclusion was that sustainability is compatible with continuous economic growth defined in terms of rising GDP and that consumerist values do not need to be questioned.
But while the report was met with mostly positive reviews in the media, and is likely to have ongoing influence among policy makers, our new paper argues that even the Report's most ambitious "green growth" scenario is incompatible with long-term sustainability and global justice. The very high uncertainty to which the scenario is subject demands that we be far more circumspect about the prospects for future economic growth.
Reliance on three highly speculative strategies
In line with dominant thinking across the world, the ANO Report argues that with bold collective leadership from government – mainly in the form of policies such as a strong and rising carbon price – economic growth could be "decoupled" from environmental impacts. Indeed, the Report claims that Australian GDP could triple by 2050 while carbon emissions, resource use, and other environmental indices dramatically fall.
In order to decouple ongoing growth from environmental impact, the Report relies heavily on three key strategies, each of which is deeply problematic.
First, in the most ambitious scenario almost half the projected emissions reductions are achieved via large scale tree plantings – known as biosequestration – designed to act as a carbon sink. Such plantings are projected to cover up to 59 million hectares or two-thirds of Australia's most productive agricultural land.
There are several major uncertainties that make the odds of this playing out as anticipated very low. These include the potential for tree plantations to compete with critical land-uses such as food, energy and conservation; the risk that farmers may fail to act "rationally" in response to price signals and shift efficiently from agriculture to carbon farms; and the risk that net carbon gains may be less than projected due, for example, to the impact of unforeseen extreme weather events such as fire or drought. We also point out that even if this strategy is viable for Australia, the global potential is much more limited given competing land demands.
Second, the ANO Report depends heavily on the viability of carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), with CCS power-plants projected to supply up to half of both Australian and global electricity by 2050. But given that no commercial scale CCS plants (defined as more than 500 megawatts of power)operate anywhere globally, and that scaling up CCS to this level would require a new worldwide infrastructure larger than the oil industry, this assumption seems highly optimistic, to say the least. We also review many of the problems with CCS which the report fails to discuss, such as the likely very high fuel costs, and the potential lack of safe geological storage sites.
The third key strategy underpinning the ANO's "green growth" hopes requires achieving historically unprecedented resource efficiency gains of 4.5% per annum. This is despite the fact that over the past decade the global economy has actually become gradually less resource efficient. We argue that the Report essentially asserts this outcome without demonstrating the viability of such deep efficiency improvements. We point to several reasons – such as intensifying resource depletion and diminishing efficiency gains over time – for why gains in practice are likely to be much more modest, even given favorable policy incentives.
The ANO Report's reliance on these three strategies is crucial to the overall achievement of net zero or even negative emissions by 2050, given that all scenarios assume continued burning of significant amounts of fossil fuels. If any of these highly speculative strategies fail, let alone all of them, then Australia will be releasing far more carbon emissions than the most optimistic scenario assumes.
Two additional fundamental problems
Even if all three of these strategies somehow prove to be viable, we argue that two further considerations show that the ANO Report fails to make a persuasive case for "green growth" via decoupling.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
19 posts so far.