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Population pressures

By Barry Naughten - posted Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Rudd Government has allowed vested interests to veto serious action on climate change.

Rudd himself has rationalised this with an argument about rapid population growth but evades the question of population policy. This comment takes up aspects of the nexus between population policy and climate change.

The White Paper’s conditional target for 2020: the backdown

In its December 2008 White Paper on CO2 reduction schemes, the Rudd Government failed to adopt the “conditional” abatement option of 25 per cent reduction relative to 2000 levels by 2020, as recommended in the Garnaut Report. Instead, the Government has adopted the far more modest target of 15 per cent reduction for 2020.


A reduction commensurate with the 25 per cent cut would be required internationally if global concentrations in the atmosphere were to be held to no more than 450 ppm CO2e, thereby significantly reducing the risk of “dangerous” climate change. Such a path would also require countries such as Australia to adopt 90 per cent emission reduction by 2050.

Other examples of weakening resolve evident in the White Paper included its excessive allocation of free emission permits to trade-exposed industries and unconditional payments of as much as $3.9 billion in free permits to coal-fired generators.

Professor Garnaut has harshly criticised the Government for caving in to the pressure from vested-interests in what has been the most expensive, elaborate and sophisticated lobbying pressure on the policy process ever.

In the White Paper, a lower, “unilateral” target of 5 per cent reduction for 2020 is based on an assumption of no comparable burden being accepted by other countries. The purpose of the higher “conditional” rate is to enable Australia play its part in encouraging a sufficient and co-ordinated response from the rest-of-the-world.

The next major step in these international negotiations is in Copenhagen on December 7-18, 2009 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. This will be the first test for the most critical player, the United States under the new Obama Administration.

The urgency of such action is heightened by indications that an Obama Administration may systematically conflate climate change with a bogus campaign - supported by neo-conservatives, “oil hawks” and others - urging US independence of “foreign” oil.


Rudd’s “population gambit”

Prime Minister Rudd’s rationale for rejecting the “conditional” 25 per cent abatement option is that Australia’s population growth is high relative to Europe’s. His claim was that “If the Europeans were to embrace the same per capita obligations that we're about to embrace, then you'd be seeing European reductions of the vicinity of 30 per cent”.

Consistent with this claim, the White Paper states that the 15 per cent cut in Australia’s emissions is equivalent to a 34 per cent cut in per capita emissions. Similar calculations show the 25 per cent cut to be equivalent to a 42 per cent cut in per capita terms, in both cases assuming a projected population of 24.6 million in 2020.

This 2020 population projection amounts to as much as a 44 per cent increase on the 1990 level, or a 29 per cent increase on the 2000 level. The Bureau of Statistics (ABS) projects that by 2056, Australia's expected resident population (ERP) could be between 31 and 43 million people. These are extraordinarily high figures for a fragile land under increasing stress, as documented for example in Jared Diamond’s chapter on Australia in his book Collapse.

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About the Author

Barry Naughten was a senior economist with ABARE, specialising in technology-based energy systems analysis. Currently he is at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), ANU, Canberra.

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

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