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In the end, climate is not an economic question

By David Spratt - posted Tuesday, 8 July 2008


There’s one iron law of global warming one can’t avoid: if we keep burning fossils fuels and pouring carbon emissions into the sky for long enough, eventually the climate will run away from the human capacity to control its trajectory. Then life will become unliveable for most people and most species. And that moment is closer than the political elite appear to understand.

We have to stop emitting greenhouse gases, and the sooner the better because already we are on the precipice of great danger. In Australia that means the loss of the coral reefs and tropical rainforest, more extreme weather events, a bigger water crisis and widespread desertification, and sea levels rising by metres this century.

It is not a question of how much more we can “safely” emit, but whether we can rapidly stop emissions and produce a cooling before such events as the loss of all sea-ice at the North Pole - predicted to happen within five years - becomes the domino that flips the climate into a state outside of all human experience.

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The objection to stopping all greenhouse gas emissions is that it will cost too much and “destroy the economy”. What is never said is that you can’t have an economy on a planet not fit to live on because most of it has become too hot. Yet the obstacles to implementing such climate solutions are primarily political and social in character, rather than technological or economic.

When we look at the range of sustaining technologies that has been created over the last 30 years through human innovation, it is clear that the options available for drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions are not beyond our collective capacity or imagination. Zero Carbon Britain, an alternative energy strategy released in 2007, finds that in 20 years, the UK could produce 100 per cent of electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, while also almost tripling electricity supply, and using it to power most heating and transport systems.

There are new, lightweight materials for vehicle construction, and household appliances that use a small fraction of the energy of those now in use. Carbon-neutral buildings do work, electricity from renewables is the fastest-growing energy industry, and hundreds of millions of people are moved by electric mass transport every day. Plug-in electric cars that use no petrol and can be re-charged from mains renewable energy are now a commercial proposition.

If we are serious about the creation of a safe climate future, how much of the world’s economic capacity should be devoted to making the necessary rapid transition to a post-carbon economy? Economic modellers and policy makers have been bickering over tenths of a per cent and fantasising that the world might be able to avoid dangerous climate change while 99 per cent of the economy continues as before.

The only practical answer is that we must devote as much of the world’s economic capacity as is necessary, as quickly as possible, to this climate emergency. It makes no sense to give high priority to producing yet more “cream on the cake” when the very viability of the planet, as a life-support system, is at stake.

We are close to blowing the system, as many leading figures are now saying with increasing urgency. At the 2007 Bali conference, UN chief climate negotiator Yvo de Boer said that reducing emissions by between 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 would cap global warming to 2C, but that this could still result in “catastrophic environmental damage”. The UN secretary-general calls the situation “an emergency”.

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It is now or never for truly radical action and heroic leadership. How much of our productive wealth we must devote to this life-saving action should not be calculated in tenths of a per cent, but in however many per cent are needed. During the last global mobilisation, World War II, more than 30 per cent, and in some cases more than half, of the economy was devoted to military expenditure.

At a rough calculation, AUD$300 to AUD$400 billion invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency in Australia would allow us to close every fossil-fuel-fired electricity generator; it would transform our key industries, and our rail and transport system, and provide a just transition for those who might be economically displaced by the changes. Much of that investment in energy efficiency would also be repaid, over time, in energy cost savings.

An investment of that size is just 3 to 4 per cent of our total economic production for 10 years, minus the energy savings. This is miniscule compared to the Australian war effort from 1939-45. Can we not identify 3 to 4 per cent of total personal consumption, government expenditure, and corporate activity that could reasonably be re-directed to this necessary task? It seems a very cheap up-front price to pay; and we reap the rewards of this investment forever.

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About the Author

David Spratt is the co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action published by Scribe in July 2008, and shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premierís Literary Awards. He is a researcher for CarbonEquity, an activist network advocating carbon rationing and personal carbon allowances as a fair and effective response to global warming. Recent CarbonEquity reports include Avoiding catastrophe: recent science and new data on global warming and The two degree target: how far should carbon emissions be cut?.

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