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Why we should reject the CSIRO's 'sustainable' growth scenario

By Jonathan Rutherford - posted Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The CSIRO has put out a National Outlook Report (NOR), which claims Australia – and indeed the world – can almost triple GDP by 2050 and increase affluent 'living standards', while at the same time significantly reducing environmental impacts.

But although the reports findings are likely to be widely accepted – and has already received positive reviews – thoughtful people have ample reason to be critical. I encourage readers to look at Dr Ted Trainer's review of the paper, which highlights many reasons for skepticism. The most serious being that, in fact, the report does not explicitly state the reasons and assumptions underpinning its key, highly questionable, claim – i.e. that Australia could, if it chooses, massively decouple economic growth from environmental/resource impacts.

My criticism of the report is more basic. It only took me a cursory reading to reject it, simply because I don't accept the basic assumptions underpinning all 20 of the reports future 2050 scenarios. In my view there are at least three assumptions, all of which crucially undermine its basic claims about 'sustainability'.


Assumption 1: The Global Economy will face no resource supply constraints to 2050

This is a highly challengeable assumption. For example, a recent peer reviewed paper estimating ultimately recoverable resources of fossil fuel resources, including unconventional, found that total fossil fuel supplies are likely to peak around 2025, with the only uncertainty being how fast they decline thereafter (in the 'high' estimate, they plateau until 2050). If these findings are even close to the mark, then fossil fuel supplies – the lifeblood of the growth economy – may well face major constraints before 2050.

Dr Graeme Turner, himself a former CSIRO staffer, certainly thinks this is possible. Turner has shown that all current indicators have us on track with the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario of the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report. The BAU scenario, Turner warns, results in catastrophic collapse of the global economy by the middle of the 21st century. The key driver of collapse in the BAU scenario is, again, mounting energy supply costs – the very factor that appears to have been overlooked by the CSIRIO.To put it mildly, if the BAU scenario turns out to be on track, then the world in 2050 – including Australia – will look very different to any of the CSIRIO's 20 scenarios.

Faulty Assumption 2: The world can continue to increase energy supply and mitigate global warming.

All 20 scenarios in the CSIRIO report assume at least a doubling of global and Australian energy supply. But there is a very strong case this is totally incompatible with achieving the "safe" 2-degree climate threshold.

In their book the 'rise and fall of carbon civilisation' Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that decarbonizing at the rate needed, while energy growth continues, even at 'carbon constrained' levels (i.e to 850 EJ by 2050, up from present 550 EJ), would be unachievable. It would involve, they argue, an implausible scaling up of renewable energy technologies – particularly solar and wind – even when optimistic assumptions have been made about the potential of Coal Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and nuclear technologies. It should be remembered that today solar and wind energy account for a mere 0.4% of final world energy supply (IEA, 2015). But to effectively decarbonize the growth economy by 2050 these technologies would need to supply more than half of world energy. This would involve a level of investment far beyond even the most optimistic projections for these technologies. Thus, Moriarity and Honnery argue that the only realistic way for humanity to achieve a safe climate by 2050 is if energy demand, far from doubling, is actually reduced from present levels. Outspoken Climate Scientist, Kevin Anderson, has made a similar claim.


The CSIRO authors might argue that such critics are overlooking the potential for bio-sequestration – i.e. planting trees to sequester carbon, which makes up a large portion of the carbon reductions in their Australian scenarios. But even if this is possible in Australia – and people should read Trainer's paper for reasons to doubt it – it is unlikely to make much of difference globally given most regions have far lower per-capita land availability than Australia, and pressing global food problems will only intensify in the years ahead, limiting the extent to which land can be used for reforestation.

Faulty Assumption 3: Australia could be 'sustainable' while continuing to take more than our fair share of world resources.

All 20 Scenarios take it for granted that in 2050 the world will, as today, be characterized by global apartheid between rich and poor. Figure 5 on p.8 of the report depicts a 2050 global order in which three billion people will form part of the global 'consumer' class. The consumer class is defined as those with annual incomes of at least $12,000 U.S – i.e. less than a third of the current Australian per capita income (a ratio that will be larger, if by 2050 Australia trebles its GDP, as the authors assume). This also means there will be another six billion people – i.e. two-thirds of humanity – who will be totally excluded from the 'consumer' club!

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About the Author

Jonathan Rutherford is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a 'Simpler Way' activist.

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All articles by Jonathan Rutherford

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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