Category Archives: Climate Policy

Australian Climate Change Authority (CCA): Draft report released on targets

On Wednesday, Australia’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) released the Targets and Progress Review Draft Report. The new Liberal government plans to abolish the CCA, and the legal requirement to set an emissions target, as part of legislation to repeal the former Labor government’s carbon price. Labor is now reportedly debating whether to negotiate on the bills, but at present Labor continues to defend the existence of the CCA and a cap on emissions. CCA is conducting the Review in accordance with existing law, but acknowledges the Government’s plans to replace the carbon price with an Emissions Reduction Fund, arguing that advice on selecting an emissions target remains relevant regardless of the chosen policy mechanism.

The Review was an opportunity for CCA to wipe the slate clean and challenge the beliefs of the major political parties about Australia’s role in climate action. Unfortunately, CCA has instead chosen to limit itself to recommending the incremental step of moving up the conditional target range at minimal cost. The Draft Report essentially adheres to the beliefs of the former government by operating within the flawed framework of the Garnaut Review commissioned by Labor, despite the Liberals having no affiliation with Garnaut.

The good

The report concludes all countries will need to do more to meet the globally agreed goal of limiting global warming to <2°C, and Australia’s present 5%-by-2020 emissions reduction target is “inadequate” and “not credible”. This is merely stating the obvious but nonetheless an advance on the position of the two major political parties. One of the reasons listed is that “it is inconsistent with action toward the 2 degree goal” because it implies “an implausibly rapid acceleration of effort” after 2020 (which seems to me important enough to make it unnecessary to mention other reasons).

CCA concludes the cost of emissions reductions is less than previously believed, because of the falling price of renewables and because emissions are tracking below 2012 business-as-usual projections (though something tells me that may have been because of the fixed carbon price). If Australia reduces its emissions by the same amount relative to business-as-usual as in the 2012 projections, we would reach 11% below 2000 in 2020. CCA also points out that more ambitious emissions targets would have a relatively small economic impact, and Australia risks becoming an economic “backwater” as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

Hopefully by declaring the 5% target “inadequate”, CCA will help shift the Australian climate debate toward more ambitious targets. However, from here on the report quickly goes off the rails.

The bad

The draft report buries the lead: at its current emissions rate Australia could exhaust its fair carbon budget in just 6 years. This conclusion is ignored in the Review’s recommendations.

CCA focuses on the <2°C target, ignoring the evidence that the present level of atmospheric CO2 and global temperature are already dangerous and there is very little time to avoid large feedbacks that could further accelerate climate change. This means we urgently need to phase out global greenhouse gas emissions, most importantly fossil fuel CO2 emissions, as quickly as possible. A pathway consistent with reducing atmospheric CO2 from 400 to 350 ppm would involve cutting global fossil fuel CO2 emissions by 6%/year beginning in 2013 (or even faster if the world delays).

CCA chooses a global budget of 1700 Gt CO2e for 2000-2050, which corresponds to a 67% chance of avoiding (or a 33% risk of exceeding) 2°C. Not only is the <2°C target unsafe, but 33% is an intolerably high risk of missing it. Also, CCA fails to spell out that a global carbon budget for any >50% probability of <2°C requires leaving most of the Earth’s fossil fuels in the ground.

In selecting its carbon budget, CCA has chosen to lump different greenhouse gases together using the flawed measure “CO2-equivalent” (CO2e). The report acknowledges that different gases behave differently in the atmosphere, but ignores this because: “Multi-gas approaches are consistent with Australia’s international commitments and with the approach adopted by other nations.” The report does not use the latest scientific information on global warming potentials in its CO2e calculations prior to FY2017-18. Similarly, the report does not acknowledge that fossil carbon and land carbon play different roles in the carbon cycle. Consequently CCA fails to recognize that it is most important and urgent to cut fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

CCA considers a number of options for Australia’s share of the 1700 Gt global carbon budget, the smallest being less than 4 Gt CO2e (based on a per-capita share of the global budget). This is the budget that would run out in a few years. But CCA dismisses this arguably fair approach because it implies an Australian emissions target of 70% below 2000 by 2020, claiming it is “probably infeasible” to make such reductions within Australia (but citing no evidence for this claim). Instead, CCA recommends Australia adopt a carbon budget of 10.1 Gt CO2e for 2013-2050, about a 1% share of the global budget. This choice is based on Garnaut’s “modified contraction and convergence” framework, which unfairly favors Australia by allowing Australia to maintain its high per-capita emissions for decades, rewarding Australia for its past failure to cut emissions, and rewarding Australia for policies promoting rapid population growth.

Unfortunately, however, CCA’s main argument for raising the emissions target is not the carbon budget but that “the Government’s conditions and the pace of international action justifies us going further”. CCA clearly sees Australia’s role in climate action as a mere follower, rather than the leader which our wealth and high emissions suggest we should be. Despite the fact that CCA’s mandate puts no limit on the ambition of the targets it can recommend, the report stubbornly stays within the Government’s present constrictive range of conditional targets (5%, 15%, or 25% below 2000). This is an implicit statement that Australia should sit around and wait for other countries to take adequate action before we strengthen our own target. Thus the argument becomes about whether the actions of other countries live up to Australia’s conditions to raise its own ambition, despite the report having earlier acknowledged the present targets of other countries are nowhere near what is required.

CCA argues the Government’s stated conditions for moving beyond 5% to 15% have been met. The report talks up the actions of other countries, for example describing the policies of the US as “ambitious”, when in reality their 2020 target is 17% below 2005, a mere 4% below 1990. And it uses various comparisons to show Australia is “at the lower end of effort compared with other developed countries”, whereas the 15% and 25% options are roughly in line with the actions of other countries. But all the Government has to say to counter CCA’s argument is that the conditions have not been met to the Government’s satisfaction.

Instead, CCA should admit it is unfair, undiplomatic, and counterproductive for Australia to make any of its actions conditional on the actions of other countries, particularly developing countries. The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” obligates the world’s richest and highest per-capita emitters to show leadership, so poor countries are unlikely to ever be impressed by conditional emissions targets from Australia. If a given target is justified, then Australia should adopt that target regardless of international action. Unconditional unilateral ambition is required to break the international deadlock, and by “ambition” I mean zero emissions ASAP.

Some of the arguments CCA makes about low costs are problematic too. For example, the conclusion that a 25% target would cost little more than 15% relies partly on the assumption that international offsets will be allowed (see “The ugly”).

Another example is CCA’s recommendation that the Government use the 91 Mt CO2e of surplus credits from Australia’s Kyoto Protocol first commitment period target to grant itself a free three-percentage-point emissions “reduction” relative to 2000 by 2020. Not only would this displace future emissions cuts, it would unfairly reward Australia for having demanded an emissions increase target in Kyoto, and “achieved” that target with creative accounting in LULUCF (land use, land use change, and forestry) without meaningfully reducing its contribution to climate change. Instead, surplus permits should be voluntarily cancelled so they do not dilute future targets.

The report claims Australia’s emissions have been level since 1990. The reality is emissions excluding LULUCF rose 32% between 1990 and 2011. CCA also claims that “over the past two decades Australia has achieved solid economic growth while halving its emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP).” In reality, emissions intensity reduces automatically over time so this statistic is not very meaningful without further context.

CCA’s recommended targets are relative to a baseline of emissions levels in the year 2000 and include LULUCF. But it would be much fairer to make 1990 the base year and exclude LULUCF from the main target, because Australia should not be rewarded for the refusal of the Hawke, Keating, and Howard governments to cut emissions.

CCA’s final report will recommend an emissions target for 2020, a target range for 2030, and an emissions budget and trajectory out to 2050, with the post-2020 recommendations to be periodically reviewed. However, the draft report does not make a final recommendation on what the 2020 target should be, instead canvassing two alternate pathways:

  • 15% below 2000 by 2020 (using up 4.3 Gt CO2e of Australia’s budget during 2013-2020), and 35-50% by 2030.
  • 25% below 2000 by 2020 (using up 4 Gt CO2e of Australia’s budget during 2013-2020), and 40-50% by 2030.

As Tim Hollo notes, these scenarios link weak 2020 targets with weak 2030 targets, at odds with CCA’s conclusion that 15% would use up more of the budget than 25% and therefore require faster emissions cuts later. CCA rules out a 40%-by-2020 target based on an arbitrary principle that “anything more than a 35 percentage point jump between targets 10 years apart is too large”.

The focus on targets as far off as 2020, 2030, and 2050 ignores the urgency of rapid global emissions cuts and Australia’s responsibility to lead the world. Moreover, such distant targets are easily undermined. CCA should instead recommend an emissions trajectory that reduces rapidly toward zero, and requires large and systemic progress within a single electoral term in transitioning from the fossil fuel economy to a zero-carbon one.

The ugly

The report ignores Australia’s largest contribution to climate change, its fossil fuel exports. But in a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, Australia shares ethical responsibility for its exports. Demand for Australia’s planned fossil fuel export growth depends on an emissions scenario leading to >4°C global warming with consequences that range from the severe to the unimaginable. Australia must stop expanding and start phasing out its fossil fuel exports.

CCA’s decision to recommend a single target for 2020 and a range for 2030 is supposedly intended to balance short-term certainty for investors with long-term flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. But investment certainty is unachievable because of the sabotaging influence of the fossil fuel lobby, and flexibility cannot wait until after 2020. The world’s governments are scheduled to agree on ambitious 2020 targets in 2014, and post-2020 targets in 2015. If Australia continues to insist on a weak target for itself, it will contribute to the global institutionalization of inadequate action until 2020 or beyond. Thus a bad decision may be difficult to correct for years even if CCA continues to exist. Therefore the CCA must get it right now.

The report endorses gas-fired electricity generation and says it is dependent on coal seam gas extraction (as well as climate policies), a conclusion which The Australian is already using to bash the Greens. In reality, investment in gas would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades we don’t have.

Despite the fact that policies determine whether targets are met in a meaningful way, the Review refuses to comment on mechanisms, except for one issue on which its recommendation is to go in the wrong direction: it says international offsets should be allowed. One of the few things which the new Government has got right is that international offsets will cause Australia’s emissions to go up not down, and that this is unacceptable. CCA should reaffirm the Government’s decision to take a strong stand on this issue, instead of seeking to weaken it.

CCA claims there is “no special merit in confining emissions reductions to domestic actions, so long as the international emissions reductions purchased are credible”. In reality, even credible offsets would delay systemic economic decarbonization in Australia and unfairly shift the burden of Australia’s target onto other countries (making a mockery of dividing up a global carbon budget into fair shares). The report also claims emissions cuts will be more expensive without international offsets. In reality, the supposed cost reduction is actually a reduction in the effectiveness of the policy, while the “cost” is mainly paid by polluting companies and pales in comparison to the avoided long-term costs of climate change.

CCA recommends: “The Government should consider allowing the use of international emissions reductions”, albeit “paying careful attention to the environmental integrity of the emissions reductions allowed”. But does CCA really believe the Government, once the door to offsets is opened, will pay any attention to their environmental integrity? The historical record in Australia and around the world shows governments will do anything to get out of making meaningful emissions cuts, so independent bodies like CCA need to hold them to account.

CCA’s focus on minimizing costs represents a failure to understand that climate change is an urgent crisis, and policies that mitigate enormous costs from climate change are preferable to policies that are cheap and ineffective. Australia’s true national interest is not in low-cost climate policy, but in preventing dangerous climate change. Moreover, governments have a long history of overestimating the costs of climate action and underestimating the costs of climate change. Perhaps most fundamentally, the discount rates used in cost-benefit analysis of climate policy effectively devalue the lives of future generations.


CCA was supposed to take the politics out of emissions targets. Instead we are seeing the same evasion of action and rationalization of inaction that we saw from Garnaut, which might make CCA look good but won’t do much to address climate change. Now I find myself asking: is this it?

CCA must recommend a carbon budget, target, and trajectory that truly meets Australia’s obligations to help prevent dangerous global warming. The government may not listen, but they certainly won’t listen if CCA never makes the argument, and CCA’s report would at least help to reframe the climate debate. A WWF-commissioned poll shows CCA is lagging behind public opinion: 80% of Australians support a deeper target than 5% and 52% support a minimum target of 25% or more. CCA itself admits that a fair estimate of Australia’s carbon budget runs out in just a few years, so why don’t they heed their own advice? I recommend the 80% target be brought forward from 2050 to 2020.

CCA has called for public submissions on the Draft Report. The submission process closes on 29 November, and if CCA still exists it will release its final report on 28 February 2014. Let’s tell CCA to step up its game.

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared at Precarious Climate.

Caps Review Part 6: ETS design flaws and pitfalls

This is the sixth part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis, Part 2 explained the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it, Part 3 outlined the role Australia should play in climate action, Part 4 debunked the economic justifications for inaction, and Part 5 makes my central recommendations on emissions caps. This part makes recommendations on the design of the carbon price mechanism.

The collapse of overseas carbon markets is a clear warning of the pitfalls of emissions trading schemes.[1] Given the Australian government has chosen to proceed with a carbon price that will become an ETS, it is essential that the Australian ETS does not fail like the EU ETS, NZ ETS, or Kyoto offset mechanisms.

Treasury projections show present Australian climate policies will not drive a phaseout of fossil-fuelled electricity generation in Australia, nor even an absolute reduction in domestic emissions, for many decades. Domestic emissions would actually rise until the 2030s then fall back to today’s level by 2050, and fossil fuels would still provide 60% of Australia’s electricity in 2035.[2] These outcomes are completely unacceptable.

International emissions trading

Australia’s present plans and agreements for international linking and offsets raise huge concerns:

  • It is difficult to determine whether international offsets represent real emissions cuts (eg. currently the most common type of Certified Emissions Reduction (CER) comes from Asian companies who produce gratuitous pollution so they can be paid to stop[3]). This criticism is based not on an irrational distrust of foreigners, but on a realistic skepticism about the difficulties of carbon accounting in developing countries with no absolute emissions caps, less regulation, and in some cases a less accountable government. (Linking to a scheme with an absolute emissions cap like the EU ETS is comparatively credible but still has the other problems outlined below.)
  • International linking and offsets hinder domestic decarbonization at a time when all countries need to decarbonize as quickly as possible.
  • International linking allows distinct emissions trading schemes to contaminate each other with their flaws (eg. the EU ETS has already achieved its 2020 emissions target eight years ahead of schedule[4], thus no longer provides any incentive to cut emissions, and so far Poland has vetoed all attempts to fix the scheme[5]). Difficulties may also arise from linking schemes with different accounting rules.
  • Australia’s carbon price would be largely determined by policy decisions made in other countries. Australia would likely be flooded by cheap international permits, causing the Australian carbon price to crash like its international counterparts. This is especially a concern considering the present rock-bottom carbon prices in the EU ETS and other international carbon markets. According to CCA modeling cited by the Australian Financial Review, the Australian carbon price could fall to $10/tonne in 2015.[6]
  • International offsets are unfair because they shift the burden of cutting emissions from Australia to other countries which are often poorer and less carbon-intensive. Although it is important for Australia to finance climate action in other countries, it should be supplementary to domestic action, not as an offset for domestic emissions.
  • The Australian public and other countries expect Australia to cut its own emissions.

The 50% “limit” on international offsets is meaningless because it allows companies to pollute up to twice the level of the Australian emissions cap.[7] Even the more recently added 12.5% limit on CERs (a step in the right direction) still allows companies to emit in excess of the cap by a very significant amount. It is unclear whether there will be any limit on importation of European permits.

South Korea and California will allow zero international permits in their emissions trading schemes.[8] Australia should do the same. The Australian government should not proceed with its intention to link to the EU ETS, Kyoto offset mechanisms, or any other international emissions trading scheme or offset mechanism.

Domestic emissions trading

There are also reasons for concern about the effectiveness of domestic emissions trading (particularly the intention to allow unlimited offsets from the domestic Carbon Farming Initiative).

Not all tonnes of CO2e are equivalent. A given amount of CO2e abated today in one way (eg. closing a coal mine) and the same amount of CO2e abated today in another way (eg. preserving a forest), although they may look the same on paper in the short term, may not be equally important in the long term. This is because different types and sources of greenhouse gases result from different economic processes and play different roles in the climate system. Although all emissions are important, it is of particular importance and urgency to phase out fossil fuel CO2 emissions because they are the largest and longest-lived cause of anthropogenic global warming (as opposed to land carbon or other greenhouse gases). If the world fails to phase out fossil fuels in a reasonable timeframe, all other efforts to mitigate climate change will matter little.

Policymakers must understand the basic facts of the carbon cycle. On human timescales carbon easily moves between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. It is only over geological timescales that these “surface reservoirs” exchange carbon with deeper, larger reservoirs. The most important thing humans are doing is mining and burning fossil carbon that has been buried for millions of years, thus emitting carbon at a pace many orders of magnitude greater than the rate of the processes which remove carbon from surface reservoirs. While storing more carbon in the land is a necessary part of climate action, it is far from sufficient and not nearly as urgent as eliminating fossil fuel emissions. Even if forest cover was returned to preindustrial levels, the carbon cycle would still be overwhelmed by fossil fuel emissions. A proportion of the fossil carbon will stay aboveground for millennia, and the land is a climate feedback so cannot store carbon permanently. Finally, from a practical perspective, land carbon is harder to measure.

Short-lived climate pollutants like methane, soot, ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons are more powerful at trapping heat than CO2 but do not linger in the atmosphere for as long. While it is very important to cut emissions of short-lived climate pollutants to prevent rapid near-term warming, this also should not be considered a substitute for phasing out fossil fuel CO2 emissions to limit long-term warming.

Other factors affecting the relative significance of different types of abatement which may not be accounted for by the carbon market (or by cost-benefit analysis) include: whether it locks in or prevents lock-in of fossil fuel infrastructure, whether it changes relative technology prices, whether the emissions reductions are permanent, and whether the emissions reductions will continue beyond the start year; in broad terms, its long-term contribution to systemic decarbonization of the economy.

The Productivity Commission, which is often referred to on whether climate policies are cost-effective, is not a credible source. It has published an inaccurate estimate of the cost of emissions cuts from solar PV[9], which it continues to cite[10] despite it having quietly debunked by the Productivity Commission itself.[11] Neither analysis accounted for technology price reductions.

An ETS is supposed to ensure emissions cuts occur where it is cheapest, but I am concerned the carbon market is unlikely to deem the most important places to cut emissions as the cheapest. If it does not, it will instead prevent the most urgently needed transition, away from fossil fuels (in which case it would merely limit the cost for the fossil fuel industry). This is especially a concern considering the free permits handed out to large polluters, which in at least some cases are making them more profitable.[12] [13] [14]

An alternative approach might be to compartmentalize the ETS by sector and/or greenhouse gas to ensure action on all fronts. Instead of a single catch-all commodity called “carbon” that equates many different things, there could be several commodities (eg. “fossil carbon”, “land carbon”, “chlorofluorocarbon”, etc), each with its own separate emissions caps and market. Companies would be allowed to exchange apples for apples, but not apples for oranges. Greatest priority (strongest cap, highest floor price) would be given to cutting the commodity with the most important role in climate change: fossil carbon. This compartmentalized emissions trading would allow each type of emissions to be reduced at the lowest credible cost.

Miscellaneous issues

Australia has delayed application of the latest science on the relative heat-trapping potential of greenhouse gases until 2017-18.[xv] It should be applied immediately so that present policy is based on the best available information.

Present measurement and accounting of fugitive emissions of methane from unconventional gas extraction is inadequate. Full measurement and accounting of these emissions should be mandated. There is evidence to suggest gas-fired electricity generation may actually be worse than coal-fired generation on a 20-year timescale when fugitive emissions are taken into account.[xvi]

The floor price should be reinstated (preferably at a higher level than the original $15/tonne) to help prevent the carbon price from crashing. The ceiling price should be removed because it limits the penalty for pollution.

Current rules allow liable companies to bank present carbon permits to use in the future, and borrow future permits to use in the present. This is unwise as it creates uncertainty in Australia’s emissions trajectory, and could result in a surplus of permits.

Emissions are counted on a facility-by-facility basis rather than company-by-company. I am concerned companies could avoid paying the carbon price by setting up a large number of small facilities each with small emissions.

It is often argued climate policy requires a choice between market mechanisms and regulatory ones, but that is a false dichotomy. A mix of markets and regulations are needed; indeed the carbon price already has both market-based and regulatory aspects. I am advocating a greater regulatory aspect to ensure the market aspect delivers an effective outcome. It would be unwise to leave too many greenhouse gas decisions to markets, because a market failure is driving the problem in the first place. On that basis, a climate policy is more likely to be effective the more limited its market aspects and the more restrictive its regulatory aspects. If markets are badly designed by governments then they will make the wrong investment decisions.

In the final part, I will argue for and suggest some complementary measures.

[1] ‘U.N. offsets crash to 15 cents ahead of EU ban vote’, Point Carbon, 12 December 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[2] Commonwealth of Australia, Strong Growth, Low Pollution: Modelling a carbon price, 2011, viewed 12 November 2012,, Charts 5.2, 5.19.

[3] E Rosenthal & AW Lehren, ‘Profits on carbon credits drive output of a harmful gas’, New York Times, 9 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[4] F Harvey, ‘Doha climate talks: EU weakened over new emissions targets’, Guardian, 23 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[5] G Parkinson, ‘The triumph of Tony Abbott’s carbon alter-ego’, Renew Economy, 29 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[6] G Winestock & M Priest, ‘EU carbon price a hard act to follow’, Australian Financial Review, 18 February 2013, viewed 21 February 2013,

[7] T Edis, ‘How Labor can improve the carbon pricing scheme’, Climate Spectator, 13 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[8] A Morton, ‘Australia lags on carbon tax rules’, Age, 26 July 2012, viewed 21 November 2013,

[9] Productivity Commission, Carbon Emission Policies in Key Economies, Research Report, 2011, viewed 14 September 2012,

[10] G Parkinson, ‘Why you are paying $10/hr to run your neighbour’s air-con’, Renew Economy, 18 October 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[11] Productivity Commission, Carbon Emission Policies in Key Economies: Responses to Feedback on Certain Estimates for Australia, Supplement to Research Report, 2011, viewed 14 September 2012,

[12] S Cullen, ‘Coal-fired stations “$1b better off under carbon tax”’, ABC News, 6 September 2012, viewed 21 November 2012,

[13] S Lauder & S Lane, ‘Consumers “paying twice” as carbon emitters compensated’, ABC News, 20 February 2013, viewed 21 February 2013,

[14] T Edis, ‘How polluters can cream the carbon scheme’, Climate Spectator, 5 September 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xv] G Combet, Australia ready to join Kyoto second commitment period, Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, 9 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xvi] RW Howarth, Santoro, R & Ingraffea, A, ‘Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations’, Climate Change, 2011, viewed 14 September 2012, et al  2011.pdf

Caps Review Part 5: Emissions caps

This is the fifth part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis, Part 2 explained the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it, Part 3 outlined the role Australia should play in climate action, and Part 4 debunked the economic justifications for inaction. This part makes my central recommendations on emissions caps.

Emissions caps are intended to cut emissions as fast as possible, not to limit the pace of emissions cuts or guarantee property rights to go on polluting. They should be designed in such a way that they do not inadvertently limit the pace of emissions cuts, which would conflict with the intent of the policy. Beginning the systemic change in the economy necessary to move toward zero emissions is more important than meeting an arbitrary emissions target and timetable.

The carbon price is intended as a mandatory penalty for carbon pollution and an incentive to drive investment in zero-carbon technology and energy efficiency. It is not intended to drive investment in less carbon-intensive fossil fuels. A higher carbon price is better than a lower one, because the bigger the shock to the system, the more likely it is to drive behavior change. A weak emissions cap, or weak policy design, would cause the carbon price to crash to levels like present international carbon prices, undermining the incentive to invest in zero-carbon assets.

The Government’s present target of a 5% emissions reduction below 2000 by 2020 is meaninglessly weak given the urgency of rapid global emissions cuts. The 2050 target of an 80% emissions reduction below 2000 has far too long a timeframe: the 2010s is the critical decade for avoiding dangerous climate change.

Ross Garnaut’s method of allocating emissions targets[i] (on which the government has based its approach) effectively rewards Australia for having high per-capita emissions, rapid projected population growth, and rapid projected business-as-usual emissions growth (factors which if anything justify a more stringent target for Australia than for other countries); and limits Australia’s maximum ambition for no good reason. Garnaut further recommended the calculated target of 25% below 2000 by 2020 be conditional on a global agreement unlikely to materialize, which is unreasonable for the reasons explained in Part 3. Furthermore, Garnaut’s advocacy of international emissions trading makes a mockery of dividing the work into “fair shares”.

In contrast, CCA’s mandate puts no limit on the ambition of the targets it can recommend. It should recommend an emissions reduction trajectory fast enough to shift the political focus from meeting an inadequate 2020 target to slashing emissions in a single electoral term, to accelerate the pace of change and so the incumbent government can be held accountable for its targets. The emissions cap should decrease each year, and reach zero as soon as possible.

To be consistent with an emergency response to preserve a safe climate, and to be fair on developing countries, Australia would need to cut its emissions faster than the 6%/year global rate mentioned in Part 1.

CCA should recommend a rate of emissions reductions faster than, and certainly no slower than, the observed emissions reduction rate during the fixed price period (which will be assessed by a contemporaneous CCA review). It should also be faster than the projected emissions reduction rate in a scenario where the fixed carbon price continues and is complemented by other climate policies like the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). It should cause the carbon price to rise rapidly over time (ie. much faster than a few percent per year) to strengthen the signal to investors.

Yet another reason for ambitious targets is that the rapidly falling prices of renewable energy technologies make it much easier to cut emissions than was believed when the 5% target was set in 2008.

The targets recommended by the Review, if approved by Parliament, will lock in an emissions trajectory through to 2020. CCA must not make the mistake of recommending unambitious emissions caps, as such a mistake would be difficult, if not impossible, to correct for five or more years. Also, CCA should recommend amending the Clean Energy Act to clarify that carbon permits are not associated with property rights so that emissions caps can be tightened after they have been set.

To encourage voluntary actions, there must be a clear mechanism to tighten the emissions cap to account for verifiable voluntary emissions cuts, including emissions cuts from other federal, state, and local policies (ie. making those policies additional to the ETS). To prevent inertia, verified emissions cuts should be subtracted from the cap in the following year, not five years after they occur. Also, recalled permits should be cancelled instead of being reissued. Any possibility of overachieving or oversupply of permits should be welcomed as an opportunity to tighten the next year’s emissions cap.

In Part 6, I will make recommendations on the design of the carbon price mechanism.

Caps Review Part 4: Economics

This is the fourth part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis, Part 2 explained the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it, and Part 3 outlined the role Australia should play in climate action. This part debunks the economic justifications for inaction.

The Australian government should not limit itself to least-cost mechanisms. Maximizing the scale, pace, and effectiveness of climate action is far more important than limiting the costs of action. Effective climate policies that help avoid enormous costs from climate change are preferable to climate policies that are cheap and ineffective.

The apparent costs of climate policies are short-term and greatly exaggerated while the external costs of CO2 emissions are greatly underestimated and long-lived. Most of the costs of climate change are long-term, unquantifiable, worst-case, and non-market costs, which are not included in cost-benefit analyses of climate action like that of the Garnaut Review.[i] Also, many cost-benefit analyses use high discount rates to estimate the future costs of climate change, which is questionable both on ethical grounds and because it assumes economic growth can continue indefinitely. The true external cost of CO2 emissions could be far higher than the current carbon price of $23/tonne, so high that practically any measures to move to a zero-carbon economy are worth taking.[ii]

Whenever someone tells you a policy is or isn’t cost-effective, ask “cost-effective based on which assumptions, over what time period, and for whom?” Emissions cuts that appear cheap can often be less credible than those with a higher upfront cost (I will elaborate on this point in Part 6). Contribution to the long-term structural change required to decarbonize the economy should be prioritized over apparent short-term cost-effectiveness. Arguments for economic efficiency are often used as excuses to undermine the intent of climate policies. Such efforts to minimize costs overlook that the cost of climate policies is (or at least is supposed to be) mainly paid by polluting companies: it’s like saying anti-tobacco legislation should be “least-cost” for tobacco companies.

Australian governments to date have tended to equate fossil fuel mining and export interests with the national interest. This misguided belief can be traced to a major mistake made in the 1980s in energy and trade policy, to stake Australia’s competitiveness on coal exports.[iii] Given the scale of the climate change threat, climate policy must not be subordinated to this mistaken goal.

The contribution of fossil fuels to the economy is overblown. Only 0.3% of Australian jobs are in coal mining. The majority of mining industry profits either go overseas or benefit only a small minority of Australians. The mining boom is driving up the Australian dollar and thereby destroying other industries. The mining sector did not prevent a recession, but in fact went into recession itself in 2009.[iv] In one sense, having high per capita emissions makes it easier for Australia to cut emissions than other countries, because there is more “low-hanging fruit”.[v] Even phasing out Australia’s coal exports would merely cause Australian GDP to double by 2031 instead of by 2030[vi], paling in comparison to the impacts of the several degrees of global warming associated with continuing demand for those exports.

Continuing to rely on fossil fuels would damage Australia’s future competitiveness. The fact that most fossil fuels are unburnable implies the global economy contains a “carbon bubble”. The valuation of fossil fuel companies is based on the assumption that their reserves will be burned. If we wish to avoid global catastrophe, that bubble must burst. When it does, more than $20 trillion worth of fossil fuel reserves will become stranded assets and the companies’ value will plummet.[vii] Environmentally unsustainable investments are ultimately also economically unsustainable. Those countries least reliant on fossil fuels will be most competitive in the future.

Australia can exit the fossil fuel business and instead export renewable energy technologies to the world. The relative importance of sectors in the Australian economy has always changed over time. Australia has vast renewable energy resources. It is possible for Australia to achieve 100% renewable energy by scaling up existing technologies.[viii] The price of renewables are falling exponentially as they are deployed, and can be further reduced by scaling up deployment, whereas the price of fossil fuels will ultimately rise as more and more countries price carbon and because they are non-renewable resources. Australian action can help change the relative prices of energy technologies globally.[ix]

The main contributor to electricity price rises has been gold-plated investment in transmission and distribution, not carbon pricing or other climate policies.[x] In contrast, climate change can be expected to cause massive increases to the cost of living, particularly food prices.

Domestic equity concerns should be addressed by assisting workers to transition into green jobs, not by handing out free permits to polluting companies. International equity concerns should be addressed by providing developing countries with funding and technology for climate change mitigation and adaptation, not by continuing to supply them with fossil fuels whose effects will hurt the world’s poorest worst of all. In many off-grid regions, solar PV is cheaper than fossil fuels.[xi]

The most important equity issue that CCA must consider is intergenerational. Young people like myself and future generations will suffer the impacts of the greenhouse gases emitted in the present. In this context, cost-benefit analyses tend to be inequitable because the use of discount rates effectively discounts the lives and living standards of future generations.[xii]

In Part 5, I will make my central recommendations on emissions caps.

[ii] F Ackerman & Stanton, E, Climate Risks and Carbon Prices: Revising the Social Cost of Carbon, Economics for Equity and Environment, 2011, viewed 14 September 2012,

[iii] G Pearse, ‘Quarry Vision: Coal, climate change, and the end of the resources boom’, Quarterly Essay 33, Schwartz Media Pty Ltd, 2009, pp. 25-26, 43.

[iv] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 82-84.

[v] C Hamilton, Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, 2007, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, pp. 42-43.

[vi] G Pearse, ‘Quarry Vision: Coal, climate change, and the end of the resources boom’, Quarterly Essay 33, Schwartz Media Pty Ltd, 2009, pp. 87.

[vii] Carbon Tracker Initiative, Unburnable Carbon: Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?, 2011, viewed 9 September 2012,

[viii] Beyond Zero Emissions, Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, 2010, viewed 9 September 2012,

[ix] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 55-56, 80-81.

[x] J Grimes, ‘The truth about rising power prices’, Renew Economy, 20 June 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xi] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, p. 47.

[xii] D Roberts, ‘Discount rates: A boring thing you should know about (with otters!)’, Grist (blog),  24 September 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

Caps Review Part 3: Australia’s role

This is the third part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis, and Part 2 explained the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it. This part outlines the role Australia should play in climate action.

Australia should take an activist, not avoidant approach to climate change mitigation.

Ross Garnaut’s paradigm on Australia’s role in mitigating climate change, on which the Government has based its approach, is deeply flawed. A more realistic approach has been outlined in the Laggard to Leader report by Beyond Zero Emissions.[i] Australia should not limit itself to implementing its inadequate existing targets. In the absence of global climate action on the necessary scale, there is a need for ambitious unilateral leadership. Unilateral action is required to get a momentum for global action. All willing countries should aim to use every lever at their disposal to cut emissions within their sphere of influence to zero or near-zero in as short a timeframe as possible, much sooner than 2050. Australia can play an important role in this regard.

Ambitious action by Australia should not be conditional on international action. The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”[ii] means Australia, as a developed country and high per-capita emitter, has the obligation and capacity to lead. Developing countries expect Australia to take unconditional ambitious action, and Australia’s lagging on climate change has damaged its international reputation.[iii] Also, conditional targets tend to be forgotten, particularly when the conditions are as unreasonable as they are at present.

Contrary to what some argue, Australia is not already leading the world with its $23/tonne carbon price. One reason for the low carbon price in the EU ETS is that many European countries have other climate policies (carbon floor prices, feed-in tariffs to support renewables, energy efficiency policies, transport policies, etc) which are taking the load off the ETS. Another reason is the EU ETS is badly designed (eg. its 2020 target requires no emissions cuts from present levels[iv]), which is no reason for Australia to follow their example. Regardless, no country on Earth is presently doing enough.

The position taken by the Australian government in UNFCCC negotiations has been largely counterproductive, including: its membership of the Umbrella Group of delayer countries; its prioritization of a post-2020 agreement over raising ambition as is urgently required; its insistence on a meaninglessly weak Kyoto Protocol second commitment period target for Australia; its unreasonable conditions for Australia to increase its Kyoto target; its refusal to countenance even conditional targets deeper than 25% below 2000; its pursuit of creative accounting rules for LULUCF (land use, land use change, and forestry) in both Kyoto commitment periods[v]; its intended reliance on international offset mechanisms; and its failure to provide finance for developing countries.

Instead, Australia should play a leading role in the UNFCCC. It should adopt an unconditional ambitious Kyoto target and stop advocating loopholes. Australia should acknowledge the “Australia clause” was an error committed by a previous government, propose an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol to correct it, and stop using it in its national emissions accounting. Australia should lobby other countries to raise their ambition. Australia should consider the promised post-2020 agreement as a distant last priority unless the implementation date is brought forward, because it is extremely misguided to focus on the mirage of a possible future agreement to be implemented after the critical decade is over. Australia is also obligated to provide funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions are the 15th largest in the world and the highest per capita in the OECD. Its cumulative historical emissions are the 14th highest in the world.[vi] Domestic emissions excluding LULUCF have risen 30% since 1990[vii], further increasing Australia’s obligation. Domestic emissions not covered by the carbon price also need to be addressed, and further increase Australia’s obligation to slash covered emissions.

Domestic emissions are only one part of Australia’s contribution to climate change, which also includes emissions from the burning of fossil fuel exports (which dwarf domestic emissions) and emissions from the manufacture of imported products. In a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, Australia shares responsibility for the emissions resulting from its exports and imports.[viii] These other contributions, as well as needing to be addressed themselves, further increase Australia’s obligation to slash domestic emissions.

Present climate policies around the world, including Australia’s, focus on constraining emissions only within their borders. Yet many of the world’s largest proposed fossil fuel projects involve carbon being mined in one country and burned in another.[ix] To target the problem at its source, much more attention must be given to constraining extraction of and global trade in fossil fuels.

Already the majority of Australia’s fossil fuels are exported. Any domestic emissions cuts will be far outweighed by planned exponential growth of fossil fuel exports.

The Australian government’s Energy White Paper[x] plans to facilitate the expansion of fossil fuel mining and export industries at a time when they must be phased out as fast as possible. Not only does the government want Australia’s enormous known fossil fuel reserves to be burned, it even promotes exploration for new ones. It boasts Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and intends it will soon be the largest exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). It projects Australia’s coal exports will double and its LNG exports quintuple by 2035 (and the total capacity of proposed coal export ports suggests the reality could be even worse).

Proposed Australian coal export projects collectively have been identified as the second largest proposed expansion of fossil fuel CO2 emissions after Chinese coal mining.[xi] Demand for these exports depends on a scenario where the world takes no further climate action beyond what has been pledged in UN climate talks, leading to >4°C global warming, despite Australia claiming to support the globally agreed objective of limiting warming to <2°C.[xii]

All the above mean Australia’s present climate policies are completely inadequate.

In Part 4, I will debunk the economic justifications for inaction.

This series was first posted on
Precarious Climate

[i] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,

[ii] United Nations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, viewed 9 September 2012,, p. 1.

[iii] C Hamilton, Running From the Storm: The development of climate change policy in Australia, 2001, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 89-92.

[iv] F Harvey, ‘Doha climate talks: EU weakened over new emissions targets’, Guardian, 23 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[v] C Milne, ‘Australia must not rort Kyoto protocol rules’, Australian Greens, 8 December 2011, viewed 22 February 2013,

[vi] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 17-19.

[vii] Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Trend, 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[viii] F Green & R Finighan, Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, Beyond Zero Emissions, 2012, viewed 9 September 2012,, pp. 16-21.

[ix] Greenpeace, Point of No Return: The massive climate threats we must avoid, 2013, viewed 23 January 2013,

[x] Australian Government Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, Energy White Paper 2012: Australia’s energy transformation, 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xi] Greenpeace, Point of No Return: The massive climate threats we must avoid, 2013, viewed 23 January 2013,

[xii] T Edis, ‘Australia’s schizophrenic energy policy’, Climate Spectator, 12 November 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

Caps Review Part 2: Politics

This is the second part in a series about the Caps and Targets Review being conducted by the Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) this year. Part 1 summarized the global climate crisis. This part explains the importance of the review and how CCA should approach it.

As a new and respected independent body, CCA has an opportunity to be a strong advocate for climate action, and challenge the assumptions that Australian governments have made about climate policy to date. The Caps and Targets Review should be treated not as a box-ticking exercise but as part of a vitally important global effort to avert climate catastrophe.

As currently designed Australia’s carbon price  is full of holes which render it ineffective, and Labor still clings to its meaningless target of a 5% reduction by 2020 (as I will expand on in later installments). However, assuming Gillard remains in power, CCA may provide an avenue for climate campaigners to persuade the government to set a real target and plug the holes.

This review is pivotal because it will recommend emissions caps for 2015-16 to 2019-20. The government will have to justify any deviation from CCA’s advice, and Parliament will have the chance to scrutinize and the power to disallow the government’s emissions caps (with a default one-year cap to apply if they are disallowed). At that time the Senate will still have its current composition, but Labor might be able to pass weak targets if the Liberals support it. If that happens, it is unclear whether it would be constitutionally possible to later reduce the number of emissions permits; any attempt to do so might be legally challenged as an acquisition of property.

Anthropogenic global warming is a complex and interconnected problem, so many issues technically outside the scope of the Caps and Targets Review are nevertheless relevant to its recommendations, hence are covered in this series. CCA’s thinking on emissions targets should be framed by crucial background and principles including the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, the political obstacles to climate action, the role which Australia should play, the baselessness of economic justifications for inaction, and the role which the carbon price should play. Even if CCA recommends ambitious targets, their effectiveness will be determined by other decisions about the design of the emissions trading scheme (ETS) which the carbon price will become in 2015, whether it is complemented by other climate policies, and whether other Australian contributions to climate change are also addressed.

There are several ways in which CCA could consider advice beyond the scope of the Review. Firstly, CCA’s mandate allows it to have regard to any relevant matter in deciding its recommendations. Secondly, there is nothing to stop the Review discussing topics outside its scope without making specific recommendations on them, to put its recommendations in context. Thirdly, I understand unscheduled reviews can be commissioned at any time and CCA can commission its own report if necessary, to research and make recommendations on vital matters outside the scope of scheduled reviews. Fourthly, a scheduled review could be brought forward. In particular, CCA is scheduled to review the carbon price mechanism in 2016. A 2016 review is too far away given the importance and urgency of getting climate policy design right, and the likelihood that emissions caps will be locked in until 2020. Therefore the date of that review should be brought forward to coincide with the Caps and Targets Review. CCA reviews should be as frequent as possible in order to accelerate climate action in the required timeframe. 

There are two possible sources of political interference that could prevent the completion of the Caps and Targets Review. Firstly, the Liberal Party has clearly stated it will abolish CCA if it wins the September election.[i] Also of concern is that Kevin Rudd has hinted that if reinstated as Labor leader he would consider an earlier transition to an ETS[ii], which could be construed as an intention to abolish CCA and set emissions caps without its advice. 

If climate change is not adequately addressed, the resulting impacts will almost certainly outweigh all other attempts to make Australia and the world a richer and/or more equitable society. Thus CCA’s main objective in all its reviews must be strengthening climate policies to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy, not weakening them to reduce alleged short-term costs. The goal of accelerating mitigation of climate change must be paramount, overriding policy certainty, cost-effectiveness, efficiency, equity, foreign policy, and trade objectives where they are perceived to conflict.

Because of the need for fossil fuel phaseout, the fossil fuel industry cannot be trusted to participate in the design of climate policies. Misleading, self-serving arguments will be made to CCA by the fossil fuel lobby and the broader business lobby. While it could be argued these organizations have a right to lobby in their self-interest, their interests should not be put ahead of the public interest. They have known for many decades about climate change and the risk it poses to fossil fuel investments, and they should now face the consequences of the investment choices they have made without special treatment by governments. Past experience (eg. with carbon price compensation) shows that when the fossil fuel lobby secures concessions from government, however arbitrary, they become entitlements that are difficult to remove.[iii]

There is little point in trying to minimize policy uncertainty for investors. The reality is that climate policy will be subject to uncertainty for the foreseeable future, because it challenges powerful interests. However well climate policies are designed today, there is a danger they will be sabotaged by vested interests tomorrow, further emphasizing the need for decisive, rapid, and transformative action. The present focus on 2020 and 2050 targets makes it too easy for present governments to delay the heavy lifting and for future governments to undermine the policies of present ones (consider Australia’s failure to meet the Hawke government’s target of a 20% emissions reduction below 1988 levels by 2005[iv]).

Within this context, the best way to design climate policies is not to aim for investment certainty, but to send the strongest signals possible to penalize fossil fuel use and incentivize investment in zero-carbon technologies. CCA must not shy away from recommending policy changes to this end. The reason for the existence of a Climate Change Authority with regularly scheduled reviews is to provide regular opportunities to strengthen Australia’s climate policies and thus accelerate decarbonization over time.[v] If CCA continues to take the light touch approach it took in its Renewable Energy Target Review, it will be making itself irrelevant.

In Part 3, I will outline the role Australia should play in climate action.

[i] ‘Energy costs up 85pc in some cases: Hunt’, Lateline [television programme], ABC1, 13 June 2012, viewed 22 February 2013,

[ii] liberalcynic, Kevin Rudd’s Press conference on his challenge for the ALP Leadership , 23 February 2012, viewed 22 February 2013,

[iii] F Green, ‘Ghosts of politicians past’, Inside Story, 3 October 2011, viewed 21 February 2013,

[iv] C Hamilton, Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change, 2007, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, pp. 46-47.

[v] C Milne, ‘Carbon price will cut pollution now, lay foundations for science-based climate action’, Australian Greens, 10 July 2011, viewed 21 February 2013,

Caps and Targets Review: A 7-part Series (Part I)

The Australian Government’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) is conducting a Caps and Targets Review this year. In this series I will explain why the review is important, outline what I think its recommendations should be, and attempt to deconstruct everything I believe is wrong with the Government’s climate policies and its underlying flawed beliefs about Australia’s role in climate action.

 Anthropogenic global warming is the largest and most urgent threat facing humanity today. There is an extremely urgent need for rapid emissions cuts to mitigate climate change. The extent of climate impacts decades, centuries and millennia from now will be determined by policy decisions taken in the near future. The Government’s own Climate Commission has identified the 2010s as the “Critical Decade” for climate change mitigation.[i]

 The latest climate science shows scientists have systematically underestimated the impacts of global warming (possibly because they have overcorrected in response to accusations of alarmism).[ii] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) dramatically understates the problem, and AR5 can be expected to do the same because of the conservative nature and inertia of the IPCC process.

 There is a high risk that current estimates of climate sensitivity (the degree of global warming associated with a given increase in CO2) are underestimates, as long-term feedbacks could become significant much sooner than expected.[iii]

 The atmospheric CO2 level is currently approaching 400 ppm[iv] (compared to the preindustrial 280 ppm), which some climatologists argue is already too high to avoid tipping points for dangerous climate change. The safe level has been estimated as somewhere below 350 ppm, which is associated with ~1°C global warming above preindustrial.[v] The Earth has so far warmed by only 0.8°C[vi] (with further warming to come if atmospheric CO2 remains at or above its present level[vii]), and already the Arctic appears to be crossing a tipping point, implying even 350 ppm is dangerous.

 Arctic sea ice is already melting faster in the real world than in the projections that will be included in AR5.[viii] Based on the trend in sea ice volume[ix] and one regional model[x], the Arctic in September could be completely sea-ice-free within a few years. By reversing the surface reflectivity of the northern polar region, the Arctic melt threatens to set off a chain reaction of tipping points, including collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and large-scale release of carbon from melting permafrost.[xi]

 The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking at an unprecedented and accelerating rate[xii], and recent modeling suggests the tipping point for total collapse could be a global temperature of around 1.6°C above preindustrial. The lower end of the range of possibilities is only 0.8°C, equal to today’s global temperature.[xiii]

 Permafrost is already starting to release carbon and could eventually emit at the same rate as deforestation, a finding which will not be included in AR5.[xiv]

 The last time the global temperature was ~1°C above preindustrial (in the Eemian interglacial age 125,000 years ago), the poles were several degrees warmer[xv], there was no summer sea ice in the Arctic[xvi], and sea level was 6-9 meters higher[xvii] [xviii] (meaning at least partial melting of the Greenland and/or West Antarctic ice sheets).

 The above findings imply we are already entering a period of dangerous climate change and there is very little time to avoid large feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of control.

 Because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, before attempting to reduce its concentration, humanity must first stop emitting.[xix] To return CO2 to <350 ppm requires cutting global fossil fuel emissions by 6%/year beginning in 2013 (followed by a global reforestation program later this century to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere). If the world delays until 2020, the required emissions reduction rate would become 15%/year.[xx] At some point the required cuts become so steep they are impossible. In practical terms, everybody needs to cut fossil fuel emissions to zero or near-zero as soon as possible (and eventually less than zero). This means a global phaseout of fossil fuels.

 The countries of the world, including Australia, have agreed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to cut emissions fast enough to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”[xxi] and more recently to limit global warming to <2°C.[xxii] As explained above, 2°C is far from a safe target; however, the world is nowhere near on track to achieve even that. A possible global climate agreement has been delayed until at least 2020[xxiii] (and even then it is far from certain to be a globally binding regime[xxiv]). Present voluntary pledges under the UNFCCC, even assuming they are successfully implemented (which is not happening[xxv]), put the Earth on course for an unimaginably catastrophic >4°C global warming by 2100 (plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming).[xxvi] The “ambition gap” between these pledges and a 2°C pathway is growing instead of shrinking.

 There is very little time to shift away from business-as-usual. CO2 is now rising by ~2 ppm/year[xxvii] and emissions are still accelerating: annual global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 58% since 1990 and rose 2.6% in 2012.[xxviii] The vast majority of the Earth’s known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to even meet the agreed goal of limiting global warming to <2°C (let alone reduce CO2 to <350 ppm).[xxix]

 Given the mounting evidence that even 1°C of warming is dangerous, it is extremely reckless to be complacent about the world’s present path to >4°C. Human civilization is unlikely to be able to adapt to anything like that level of global warming.[xxx] There is no precedent in human history: global temperature has varied by only a few tenths of a degree in the relatively stable climate of the past 10,000 years in which human civilization developed[xxxi] (though even such small global variation sometimes produced local climate changes large enough to cause or contribute to the demise of local civilizations[xxxii]). When the Earth was 5°C cooler 20,000 years ago, northern Europe and Canada were covered by ice sheets.[xxxiii] It has not been 4°C warmer since Antarctica was ice-free 35 million years ago.[xxxiv]

 It is impossible to predict the exact social impacts of climate change, but it is not difficult to imagine unprecedented migrations of hundreds of millions of people, resource wars, and even a collapse of global civilization.

 Some argue it is already too late to avert dangerous climate change. Even if that turns out to be correct, we must act now to limit the damage by decarbonizing the global economy as fast as possible. In case it is too late, geoengineering to remove CO2 from the atmosphere on a large scale and/or cool the planet now also warrants serious consideration, albeit as a last resort.

 In Part 2, I will explain the importance of the Caps and Targets Review and how CCA should approach it.

This series was first posted on
Precarious Climate

[i] Climate Commission, The Critical Decade: Climate science, risks and responses, Commonwealth of Australia (Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency), 2011, viewed 22 February 2013,

[ii] D Nuccitelli, ‘Climate scientists erring on the side of least drama’, Skeptical Science (blog), 30 January 2013, viewed 21 February 2013,

[iii] JE Hansen, M Sato, P Kharecha, D Beerling, R Berner, V Masson-Delmotte M Pagini, M Raymo, DL Royer, & JC Zachos, ‘Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?’, Open Atmospheric Science Journal, vol. 2 (2008), pp. 217-231, viewed 21 February 2013,

[iv] Earth System Research Laboratory, ‘Recent Global CO2’, Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,  US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2013, viewed 21 February 2013,

[v] J Hansen, P Kharecha, M Sato, F Ackerman, PJ Hearty, O Hough-Guldberg, S-L Hsu, F Krueger, C Parmesan, S Rahmstorf, J Rockstrom, EJ Rohling, J Sachs, P Smith, K Steffen, LV Susteren, K von Schuckmann, & JC Zachos, ‘Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press, viewed 12 August 2012,

[vi] J Hansen, R Ruedy, M Sato, K Lo, ‘Global surface temperature change’, Rev. Geophys., vol. 48 (2010), RG4004,

[vii] G Schmidt, ‘Climate change commitment II’, RealClimate (blog), 2 June 2010, viewed 22 February 2013,

[viii] D Spratt, ‘Arctic sea-ice melt record more than broken, it’s being smashed’, Climate Code Red (blog), 25 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[ix] S Carana, ‘How British government’s climate forecasting MET Office gets the Arctic wrong’, Climate Code Red (blog), 20 September 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[x] D Spratt, ‘All gone by 2015? Welcome to the Arctic end times’, Renew Economy, 30 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xi] Neven & K McKinney, ‘Why Arctic sea ice shouldn’t leave anyone cold’,  Arctic Sea Ice Blog, 26 August 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xii] M-J Viñas, Satellites See Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt, NASA, 24 July 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xiii] A Robinson, R Calov, & A Ganopolski, ‘Multistability and critical thresholds of the Greenland ice sheet’, Nature Climate Change, vol. 2 (2012), pp. 429-432, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xiv] B Cubby, ‘At the edge of disaster’, Age, 28 November 2012,  viewed 21 February 2013,

[xv] J Hansen & M Sato, ‘Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change’, Climate Change at the Eve of the Second Decade of the Century: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects: Proceedings of Milutin Milankovitch 130th Anniversary Symposium, 2012, pp. 21-47, viewed 22 February 2013,

[xvi] Climate Commission, Loss of Arctic sea ice indicates global risks from climate change, 2012, viewed 13 November 2013,

[xvii] RE Kopp, FJ Simons, JX Mitrovica, AC Maloof & R Oppenheimer, ‘Probabilistic assessment of sea level during the last interglacial stage’, Nature, vol. 462 (2009), pp. 863-867, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xviii] A Dutton & K Lambeck, ‘Ice volume and sea level during the last interglacial’, Science, vol. 337 (2012), pp. 216-219, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xix] G Schmidt, ‘Climate change commitment II’, RealClimate (blog), 2 June 2010, viewed 22 February 2013,

[xx] J Hansen, P Kharecha, M Sato, F Ackerman, PJ Hearty, O Hough-Guldberg, S-L Hsu, F Krueger, C Parmesan, S Rahmstorf, J Rockstrom, EJ Rohling, J Sachs, P Smith, K Steffen, LV Susteren, K von Schuckmann, & JC Zachos, ‘Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press, viewed 12 August 2012,

[xxi] United Nations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, viewed 9 September 2012,, p. 4.

[xxii] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ‘The Cancun Agreements: Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention’ in Report of the Conference of the Parties on its sixteenth session, held in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010, United Nations, viewed 12 August 2012,

[xxiii] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ‘Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ in Report of the Conference of the Parties on its seventeenth session, held in Durban from 28 November to 11 December 2011, United Nations, viewed 12 August 2012,

[xxiv] M Levi, ‘A misplaced climate celebration in Durban’, Energy, Security, and Climate (blog), 11December 2011, viewed 12 August 2012,

[xxv] Climate Action Tracker, Emissions gap looks set to increase if government action doesn’t step up, Climate Analytics, 2012, viewed 12 August 2012,

[xxvi] The Climate Scoreboard, Climate Interactive, 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xxvii] Earth System Research Laboratory, ‘Recent Global CO2’, Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,  US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2013, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xxviii] Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2012, 3 December 2012, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xxix] Carbon Tracker Initiative, Unburnable Carbon: Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?, 2011, viewed 9 September 2012,

[xxx] Climate Commission, Avoiding the Unadaptable: a 4°C world, Australian Government, 2012, viewed 22 February 2013,

[xxxi] J Hansen & M Sato, Earth’s Climate History: Implications for Tomorrow, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, 2011, viewed 22 February 2013,

[xxxii] M Medina-Elizalde & EJ Rohling, ‘Collapse of Classic Maya civilization related to modest reduction in participation’, Science, vol. 335 (2012), no. 6071, pp. 956-959, viewed 21 February 2013,

[xxxiii] J Hansen & M Sato, ‘Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change’, Climate Change at the Eve of the Second Decade of the Century: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects: Proceedings of Milutin Milankovitch 130th Anniversary Symposium, 2012, pp. 21-47, viewed 22 February 2013,

[xxxiv] J Hansen & M Sato, ‘Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change’, Climate Change at the Eve of the Second Decade of the Century: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects: Proceedings of Milutin Milankovitch 130th Anniversary Symposium, 2012, pp. 21-47, viewed 22 February 2013,

Zero Carbon Australia: We can do it

Britain has just announced an emissions reduction target of 50% by 2025. Germany has adopted a renewable energy target of 35% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Japan is talking about moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, toward renewables. Even China is investing in equally massive amounts of fossil fuel and renewable energy capacity. These are four of the top ten economies and greenhouse gas emitters of the world. Certainly they could be doing more, but they are leaving Australia for dead.

Australia is currently squabbling over reducing its emissions by 5% by 2020, yet we can achieve far more than that. Last year, the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute in conjunction with Beyond Zero Emissions produced the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan. The ZCA2020 Plan outlines an ambitious and inspiring vision: to power Australia with 100% renewable energy in ten years.

The report that has been released only covers emissions from Stationary Energy (though it does refer to electrifying transport). Five future reports are planned on how to eliminate emissions from other sectors (Transport, Buildings, Land Use and Agriculture, Industrial Processes, and Replacing Fossil Fuel Export Revenue).

Why do it, and why now?

The bad news is humanity must phase out fossil fuels to keep the climate in the range we have experienced. As I’ve explained here, to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” we must reduce CO2 to below 350 ppm. That necessitates a rapid transition to a zero-carbon economy.

A common approach is to define a quota of allowable future global emissions to limit warming to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels, and divide them up by nation per capita. At Australia’s current rate of emissions, we will use up our share of the global budget in just five years (the same goes for the US and Canada). This gives Australia about a decade to make the transition.

Global Carbon Budget for Emissions

Figure 1: CO2 emissions budget for selected nations.

That’s why Zero Carbon Australia 2020 is not a low emissions plan but a zero emissions plan. This is a fundamentally different way of thinking about the problem. It goes straight to zero emissions technologies, without a detour through low emissions ones which would waste time and resources.

If the Plan is adopted later it could still meet a later deadline. But obviously, further delay means ever increasing risks – and the risks are already very high.

The good news is that action on this scale is not only possible but surprisingly feasible.

What energy sources would power Australia?

The Plan chose only technologies that can meet demand, can be implemented within ten years, are already commercially available, and (obviously) are zero-carbon, not counting emissions from construction.

60% of the grid would be powered by concentrating solar thermal (CST). The other 40% would come from wind turbines. The Plan also includes small-scale solar to reduce the grid demand during the daytime. Biomass and existing hydroelectric would be used as backups.

Of course, this is only one possible scenario. Technologies that become available in future could increase our options and reduce the cost.

Nuclear power was not considered because the implementation time is longer than a decade. Hydro and biomass are limited in scalability for unrelated environmental reasons. Wave, tidal, and geothermal are promising technologies but not yet ready. Carbon capture and storage is neither commercially available nor zero-carbon.

How would they provide continuous power?

A common misconception is that renewables can’t provide continuous (“baseload”) power. But the technology of concentrating solar thermal can. It was proven at commercial scale in the 1990s. The US Department of Energy lists several dozen solar thermal plants currently in operation.

Here’s how it works. Mirrors called “heliostats” track the Sun and focus sunlight onto a central “power tower”. This energy is stored in molten salt as heat, warming the salt to 565°C. This energy storage has an efficiency of up to 93%. To produce electricity, the hot salt is pumped into a generator, where the heat is transferred to steam which drives a turbine. Once the salt is cooled to 290°C (still warm enough to be molten), it returns to the tank to be reheated.

Solar Thermal Power Tower

Figure 2: Diagram of a concentrating solar thermal power plant.

The Sun doesn’t shine at night, but this is not a problem for a solar thermal plant because it has a store of energy ready to go at any time. CST can produce power around the clock. The ZCA2020 report describes it as “better-than-baseload” because it is more flexible. CST works well with wind power, because the stored solar energy can be used when there is not enough wind.

As the cheapest form of renewable energy, wind can provide a generous portion of our electricity. Because the wind isn’t blowing all the time, wind farms average only 30% of their capacity. At least half of the electricity produced (ie. 15% of capacity) is expected to be as reliable as “baseload”.

Finally, the Plan includes more than enough backup biomass capacity to fill the gaps created by worst-case weather. The hydro and biomass backups are required for just 2% of demand.

The report modeled the ZCA2020 grid, based on real-world insolation and wind speed. They assumed a demand 40% higher than today (accounting for increased energy efficiency and electrification of transport and heating). The modeling confirmed the proposed portfolio of solar, wind, hydro, and biomass would indeed supply demand.

How much solar and wind must be built, and where?

Proposed Power Grid for Renewable Electricity

Figure 3: Map of proposed sites. Yellow squares are solar power plants, blue squares are wind power plants, red lines are high-voltage direct current transmission, and green lines are high-voltage alternating current transmission.

The Plan proposes 12 CST sites, each with 13 major power towers, each power tower with 18,000 heliostats. Together, they would have a total capacity of 42.5 GW and be able to store enough energy to meet winter demand.  

The proposed locations are near Bourke, Broken Hill, Carnarvon, Charleville, Dubbo, Kalgoorlie, Longreach, Mildura, Moree, Port Augusta, Prairie, and Roma. These towns are far enough inland to have high sunlight throughout the year, but close enough to the populated coasts for it to be economical to build high-voltage transmission lines.

Each site would measure approximately 16 by 16 km. The total land used would be less than 3,000 km2. That’s comparable to Kangaroo Island, smaller than some large cattle stations, and 0.04% of the area of Australia.

To provide enough reliable wind power for a 40% target, we need a total capacity of 50 GW, 25 times what it is now. The best commercially available wind turbines have a capacity of 7.5 MW, so we need to build 6,400 of them. Land covered by wind turbines can still be used as farmland.

The Plan proposes 23 sites dotted around the coast. The locations are widely dispersed so the grid is not dependent on the weather in any one place. They are also chosen for high wind speeds in winter, when less solar power is available. Each site has annual average wind speeds of at least 25 km/h.

To put all this in perspective, some other nations are investing in renewables on a large scale. China already has 25 GW of wind capacity and will have 150 GW in five to ten years. Denmark has a target of 50% wind power by 2025. And Spain will have 2.5 GW of solar thermal capacity by 2013.

What is the timeline?

The CST plants would be built in two stages. The first stage would begin by constructing small power towers and gradually ramp up until 2015, when solar power costs become competitive with coal power. The majority of the power supply would come online during the second stage, with a constant rate of manufacture to 2019.

Wind would be scaled up faster because it is cheaper and there are already a number of installations in the pipeline. New projects would start every six months and take a year to complete. A three-year ramp-up should lower the cost to European levels, also followed by a constant rate of construction.

What resources are required?

The Plan involves building 23,000 km of high voltage transmission – both to connect the new power stations to the grid, and to connect the multiple existing grids to each other (so supply does not depend on the weather in one place).

At peak construction, the Plan requires 600,000 heliostats and 1,000 wind turbines per year. These could either be mass-produced in Australia or imported. In Australia it could create 30,000 jobs in manufacturing.

The plan would also create 80,000 new construction-related jobs, and 45,000 ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance, replacing an equivalent 20,000 in fossil fuels. In addition, the 30,000 manufacturing jobs could also be retained to export components to the world. Some solar jobs would even be in the same areas as lost mining jobs.

The concrete needed is a tiny fraction of Australia’s resources, and the steel a tiny fraction of our exports. A solar power plant uses merely 12% as much water as a coal power plant. However, we would need several new factories producing glass and other materials.

How much will it cost?

The total capital cost over the decade is $370 billion, or 3% of GDP per year. That’s about the amount of money spent on insurance, or the value added by the real estate sector, or the money spent on coal, gas and uranium. Most of the money is spent in the latter half of the decade, after the public has already seen some of the benefits of the initial investment.

About half of the money, $175 billion, would be spent on solar thermal plants, as well as $92 billion to upgrade the grid, $72 billion on wind turbines, $17 billion on off-grid solar, and $14 billion on biomass. However, the Plan looks at these costs as an investment. It leaves open the question of where the funding would come from, suggesting a combination of public and private sources.

The investment pays itself back by 2040 or as soon as 2022, depending on which costs you count. The Net Present Cost over the period 2011-2040 is equal to business-as-usual (BAU) if you only include direct costs. Though the capital costs of ZCA2020 are much higher than BAU, more money is saved because solar power plants do not need a constant supply of coal and gas for fuel. If you also take into account the Net Present Cost of oil and (possibly) priced emissions under BAU, ZCA2020 could potentially save $1.5 trillion.

Economic Model Comparison

Figure 4: Net present value of ZCA2020 Plan compared to business as usual.

All the above completely ignores climate and environmental costs, which obviously would heavily favor ZCA2020. The Stern Review estimated that a global effort to mitigate climate change could save 20% of GDP per year by 2050.

The effect of the transition on electricity prices depends on how it is funded. In one possible scenario, they could rise by $8 per household per week, similar to what is expected under BAU.

What will happen to the fossil fuel industry?

The report does not address this as it is a political question. However, it does point out companies were aware of the risk to their industry when they invested in their assets.

How do we convince our leaders this is a good idea?

Now I wish I knew the answer to that one. When Australia finally wakes up to the climate crisis, Zero Carbon Australia 2020 provides a useful blueprint for decarbonising our energy sector. But we’d better wake up pretty damn quick. Countries such as Britain and Germany are moving in the right direction, but we all need to be moving towards zero carbon economies as quickly as possible.

So far Australia has not shown leadership on clean energy, preferring to see itself as a mining nation. Renewable energy entrepreneurs are going overseas because there is no market in Australia. Yet we have vast untapped renewable resources.

Societies have shown that they can be mobilized by ambitious visions. When J.F.K. proposed landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, it seemed incredible. Yet the goal was accomplished twice before the deadline.

Global warming is a very real and urgent threat. As an extremely high per capita emitter Australia has an imperative to take drastic mitigating action. ZCA2020 shows powering Australia with renewable energy is feasible using commercially available technology. Solar thermal can provide better-than-baseload power. The transition would stimulate the economy, save up to $1.5 trillion by 2040, create jobs, and make Australia a leader in clean energy. So what are we waiting for?

(This post is an updated and modified version of an earlier post on Skepticalscience.)

Climate Emergency: Time to Slam on the Brakes

Global warming is an increasingly urgent problem. The urgency isn’t obvious because a large amount of warming is being delayed. But some of the latest research says if we want to keep the Earth’s climate within the range humans have experienced, we must leave nearly all the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. If we do not act now we could push the climate beyond tipping points, where the situation spirals out of our control. How do we know this? And what should we do about it? Read on.

James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist and one of the first to warn greenhouse warming had been detected, set out to define dangerous human interference with climate. In 2008, his team came to the startling conclusion that the current level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is already in the danger zone.

Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 has increased from 280 to 390 parts per million (ppm). Don’t be fooled by the small number – 390 ppm is higher than CO2 has been in millions of years. CO2 is rising by 2 ppm per year as we continue to burn fossil fuels. To stabilise the Earth’s climate, we must reduce CO2 to the relatively safe level of 350 ppm. And we must hurry, because the task will soon be an impossible one.

The 350 target is based not on climate modeling, but on past climate change (“paleoclimate”). Hansen looked at the highly accurate ice core record of the last few hundred thousand years, sediment core data going back 65 million years, and the changes currently unfolding. He discovered that, in the long term, climate is twice as sensitive in the real world as it is in the models used by the IPCC.

The key question in climate modeling is how much global warming you get from doubling CO2, once all climate feedbacks are taken into account. A feedback is something that amplifies or cancels out the initial effect (eg. interest is a feedback on a loan). The models include “fast feedbacks” like water vapor, clouds, and sea ice, but exclude longer-term “slow feedbacks” like melting ice sheets (an icy surface reflects more heat than a dark surface).

Both models and paleoclimate studies agree the warming after fast feedbacks is around 3°C per doubling of CO2. Slow feedbacks have received far less attention. Paleoclimate is the only available tool to estimate them. To cut a long story short, Hansen found the slow ice sheet feedback doubles the warming predicted by climate models (ie. 6°C per CO2 doubling).

Long-Term Climate Sensitivity

The global climate has warmed only 0.7°C, but has not yet fully responded to our past emissions. We know this because the Earth is still gaining more heat than it is losing. There is further warming in the pipeline, and Hansen’s results imply there’s a lot more than in the models. If CO2 remains at 390 ppm long enough for the ice sheet feedback to kick in, the delayed warming would eventually reach 2°C. That would result in an Earth unlike the one on which humans evolved and a sea level rise of not one metre, not two metres, but 25 metres. Imagine waves crashing over an eight-storey building.

It’s hard to dispute this would be “dangerous” climate change. But how quickly could it happen? In the past, ice sheets took millennia to respond, though once they got moving sea level rose several metres per century. But maybe ice sheets can melt faster if CO2 rises faster, as it is now doing. The IPCC predicted they would grow by 2100, but instead they are starting to shrink “100 years ahead of schedule”. Once an ice sheet begins to collapse there is no way to stop it sliding into the ocean. We would suffer centuries of encroaching shorelines. The climate change we started would proceed out of our control.

If ice sheets can melt significantly this century, then Hansen’s long-term warming has near-term policy implications. The tragedy we have set in motion can still be prevented, if we get the Earth to stop accumulating heat before slow feedbacks can kick in. To do so we must target the greatest, fastest-growing, and longest-lived climate driver: CO2.

Under business as usual, we are heading for up to 1,000 ppm by 2100, or nearly two doublings (and that’s not including possible carbon feedbacks). This would surely be an unimaginable catastrophe on any timescale. Even the mitigation scenarios governments are quarreling over are based on IPCC assessments now several years out of date. The lowest CO2 target being considered is 450 ppm, which Hansen concluded would eventually melt all ice on the planet, raising sea level by 75 metres. The Earth has not been ice-free since around the time our distant ancestors split off from monkeys.

Instead of stepping on or easing off the accelerator, we need to be slamming on the brakes. We must not only slow the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, but reverse it. We must reduce CO2 from 390 to 350 ppm as soon as possible. That should stop the planet’s accumulation of heat. Stabilizing the CO2 level will require rapidly reducing CO2 emissions until nature can absorb carbon faster than we emit it – in practical terms, cutting emissions to near zero.

The only realistic way of getting back to 350 ppm is leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. We must:

1) phase out coal by 2030. It is not enough to slow down coal-burning by converting it to liquid fuels, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. The fundamental problem is with the coal being burned at all.

2) not burn tar sands or oil shale. Their reserves are virtually untapped but thought to contain even more carbon than coal. Canada cannot keep burning them.

3) not burn the last drops of oil and gas if their reserves are on the high side. If it turns out we have already used about half, then we can safely burn the rest.

4) turn deforestation into reforestation. We’d still be left with the gargantuan task of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Nature can absorb some carbon, but it has limits.

CO2 Emissions and Atmospheric Concentration with Coal Phaseout by 2030

It won’t be easy, but with these actions CO2 could peak around 400 ppm as early as 2025 and return to 350 ppm by century’s end. I believe we can achieve this; it’s primarily a question of political will. But our window of opportunity is rapidly slamming shut. Even one more decade of business as usual, and CO2 can be expected to remain in the danger zone for a very long time.

I should point out estimating a CO2 target from paleoclimate is fraught with uncertainties. I’ve had to simplify for this short article. I explain in more detail on Skeptical Science, or you can read Hansen’s paper free here. If there is one lesson recent climate research should teach us, it is that it’s a mistake to call uncertainty our friend. Arguably the most important aspect Hansen ignores, carbon feedbacks, is likely to make things even worse. There is more than enough reason to heed Hansen’s warning.

Right now we stand at an intersection. What we do in this decade is crucial. If we choose one path, by the end of the decade the world could be well on its way to phasing out coal. If we choose the other, we face an uncertain future in which the only certainty is a continually shifting climate. I’ll leave the final word to Hansen et al, whose concluding statements were pretty strongly worded coming from a dense, technical, peer-reviewed paper:

Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. […] The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to James who wrote this blog post which is also the Basic Rebuttal to the argument “It’s not urgent” (if you ever encounter this argument, just point people to ). James originally wrote a much longer blog post but I asked him to shorten it (the longer version now acts as the Advanced Rebuttal). So he patiently rewrote a much shorter version which I asked to shorten again (that version now acts as the Intermediate Rebuttal). In this final version, James informed me, “I cannae shorten it no more, captain!”