All posts by David Hodgkinson

Air travel and 21st century fears

Air travel shows robust and sustained growth of 4 to 5% per year, and Airbus anticipates that air traffic will continue to grow at just under 5% annually.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the organization of the world’s airlines, expects to see a 31% increase in passenger numbers between 2012 and 2017, with total annual passenger numbers rising to just under 4 billion by the end of that period.

Such growth, it has been estimated, would require more than 29,000 new passenger and cargo aircraft with a value of more than US$ 4 trillion. Another estimate states that the number of aircraft in service in 2011 will double by 2031.

Two concerns – two fears – have the ability to derail this growth in the 21st century, for different reasons and across different timescales. These concerns are the spread of Ebola virus (and future contagious diseases) and climate change.

Ebola virus

Ebola virus disease is an acute, often fatal illness in humans which first occurred in remote villages in Central Africa in 1976. It is transmitted to humans from wild animals, and in the human population through transmission from human to human. The average Ebola case fatality rate is about 50%; such rate has varied between 25 and 90% in previous outbreaks.

The present outbreak in West Africa ‘is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak’ since Ebola was first discovered. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes,

[t]here have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. It has also spread between countries starting in Guinea then spreading across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, by air (1 traveller only) to Nigeria, and by land (1 traveller) to Senegal.

Transmission during air travel

The incubation period of Ebola is from 2 to 21 days. People become infective with the onset of symptoms. The primary mode of transmission is from person to person through ‘direct contact with infected, symptomatic persons or their body fluids/secretions.’

WHO notes that infected persons have travelled internationally and that more Ebola cases ‘might be exported to non-affected countries.’ It also notes the possibility ‘that a person who has been exposed to the Ebola virus and developed symptoms may board a commercial flight,’ and that such persons ‘should seek immediate medical attention upon arrival, and then be isolated to prevent further transmission.’

Liability issues: More the contagion of fear of contagion …

WHO further states that risks to fellow travellers in a situation where a person who has been exposed to Ebola and then travels on a commercial flight are very low. It should also be noted that those who are contagious don’t have a chance to infect many other people before they are isolated during treatment. However, WHO does recommend ‘contact tracing’ in such circumstances.

Air travel by those exposed to Ebola virus raises the question of airline liability for passenger death or injury.

Liability for bodily injury or death of a passenger on board an international flight is determined by reference to international aviation treaties. The 1929 Warsaw Convention was the first of these treaties. The most recent is the 1999 Montreal Convention, and it is the treaty that will most likely apply to a passenger’s journey.

Article 17 of the Montreal Convention provides that a carrier:

… is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking. 

Death or injury must be caused by an ‘accident.’ The most widely and generally accepted definition of an accident is set out in the decision in Air France v Saks, in which the US Supreme Court stated that liability under Article 17:

 … arises only if a passenger’s injury [or death] is caused by an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.

It would seem, then, that a health condition or a pre-existing injury that worsened as a result of air travel would not be an ‘accident’ for the purposes of the Montreal Convention. Moreover, as the UN aviation body, ICAO, and others have stated,

The risk of transmission of Ebola virus disease during air travel is low. Unlike infections such as influenza or tuberculosis, Ebola is not spread by breathing air (and the airborne particles it contains) from an infected person. Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animals, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller.

Nonetheless, it appears that Ebola fears have already affected the financial performance of the world’s carriers. Last week US airline shares fell by up to 6% ‘as part of an overall market slump’ due in part to fear of Ebola.

‘Mucking up the planet’

Another fear or concern which has the ability to derail aviation growth is climate change. It is considered that air travel is ‘the most carbon- intense form of travel.’

No matter what the aviation industry does to reduce emissions, it will be outweighed by growth in air travel, according to a new analysis. Growth will trump emissions cuts even if significant (and contentious) measures come into force to try and curb emissions – and those measures are decades away at best.

Last year, researchers calculated that total aviation emissions in 2006 were 630 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that by 2050, those emissions are projected to be between 1,000-3,100 million tonnes depending on how much air traffic grows, and how successfully we can tackle emissions with measures like improved fuel efficiency, biofuels, and emissions trading.

‘The last flight I ever take’

The new report referred to above by researchers at the University of Southampton shows there is not much the aviation industry can do to reduce emissions – and indeed it has not done much to date. ICAO lacks the legal authority to force airlines to cut emissions and, as the study’s authors point out, it relies on ‘voluntary cooperation and piecemeal agreements.’

If the status quo is maintained, civil aviation is forecast to become an increasingly significant contributor to global emissions.

As the meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus has said,

I realized, just now: This has to be the last flight I ever take. I’m committing right now to stop flying. It’s not worth the climate.


Putting a price on carbon: Why not a carbon tax?

In Australia there has never really been a debate about the merits of particular policy instruments available to governments – price-based or quantity-based ones – to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Climate change mitigation involves reducing GHG emissions, reducing the rate and magnitude of global warming. Many of the impacts of climate change can be reduced or delayed by mitigation. The main economic requirement for effective mitigation is to put a price on carbon.

At the moment we don’t generally pay for the current and future costs of our emissions. Thus, Lord Stern refers to a climate change ‘market failure’. As one economist puts it,

we need to correct this market failure by ensuring that all people, everywhere, and for the indefinite future face a market price for the use of carbon that reflects the social costs of their activities. Economic participants [governments, firms, people] … need to face realistic prices for the use of carbon if their decisions about consumption, investment, and innovation are to be appropriate.

Qantity or price-based instruments?

The question is whether to rely on quantity-based or price-based instruments. A price-based instrument is a carbon tax. A tax sets a price on carbon, and emitters choose how much to emit; an emissions trading scheme (ETS) sets a total quota for emissions; emitters – the market – work out the price.

An ETS is a quantity-based instrument, the most common example of which is a cap-and-trade system. The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), a proposed Australian ETS which was to have begun on 1 July 2011, was never implemented. And national ETS legislation – the Clean Energy Act – has been repealed with effect from 1 July 2014.

Given the failure of emissions trading at the national level and its (now) near-absence at the state level in Australia, we set out here how a carbon tax could work and some of its advantages. New research confirms additional carbon tax advantages.

A carbon tax could begin at a relatively low level (so as to avoid disruption) and would increase steadily, and predictably, over time, providing incentives to affected corporations to lower emissions, and encouraging those corporations to use energy more efficiently – encouraging the move to lower emissions technology.

And while there are a number of points at which to impose a carbon tax, there is some agreement that the most simple, efficient way is for it to be introduced as close to the source of the fuel as possible – that is, as far upstream in the energy supply chain as possible.

One result of an upstream approach is that increased costs would be passed along by suppliers and would be borne, ultimately, by consumers; they would be passed into downstream prices of electricity, for example.

It is argued by those on both the left and the right that a carbon tax would provide government revenue which could then be used to reduce or offset other forms of taxation, primarily corporate and personal income taxes, thus making a carbon tax ‘revenue neutral.’ Revenue from a carbon tax could also be used to subsidise alternative fuel industries and projects.

Arguments for a carbon tax

Arguments that can be made for the imposition of a carbon tax, both in isolation and as against an ETS, include the following:

 1.         Taxation is a proven instrument. Countries have used taxes for centuries, and their properties are well understood. For Yale University’s Nordhaus, such advantages are even clearer when compared to the operation of an international ETS. As he says,

tax systems are mature and universally applied instruments of policy … By contrast, there is no experience – as in zero – with international cap-and-trade systems [although that’s not quite true now] … [I]t would be … perilous for the international community to rely on an untested system like international cap-and-trade to prevent dangerous climate change …

2.         Taxes capture revenue more easily than quantitative instruments, and are less costly. Tax infrastructure is in place; pre-existing collection mechanisms exist. Taxation has lower administrative and compliance costs than does carbon trading.

3.         Taxation is more direct and transparent than emissions trading (so it’s said), and affords less opportunity for corruption; money moves from polluters directly to the government. And a carbon tax provides price certainty and stability (as opposed to permit price volatility) and a fixed price for carbon emissions across all economic sectors and markets.

The argument for carbon taxation is concisely made by Harvard economist Richard Cooper:

Decisions to consume goods and services made with fossil fuels are made by over a billion households and firms in the world. The best and indeed only way to reach all these decision makers is through the prices they must pay. If we are to reduce CO2-emitting activities, we must raise the prices of those activities. Levying a [tax] … does that directly.

New research – why taxes are better

Recent research from Stanford Law School shows that vital information necessary for the design of cap and trade systems is unavailable to those making climate policy and that, while accurate emissions forecasts are needed to set the cap, energy models ‘are not up to the task.’

This is not the case with regard to carbon taxes. The Stanford research shows that such taxes ‘don’t require the same level of information about future emissions in order to create real policies.’ Further,

[c]arbon taxes are likely to produce emissions reductions relative to baseline emissions with greater certainty than a cap-and-trade because a real carbon tax will always create incentives to lower emissions while real cap-and-trade may not.

There is also news from the United States for adherents of emissions trading schemes. Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland plans to introduce legislation in the US House of Representatives that would result in permits purchased by coal, oil and natural gas corporations for each tonne of carbon in the fuels they sell being auctioned. All of the proceeds would be ‘returned straight to the American people as equal dividends for every woman, man and child.’

The New York Times asks whether the bill ‘stand[s] a snowball’s chance in the partisan hell of Washington.’

The answer is no.

Aviation’s emissions problem

Earlier this month (August 2012) the Commonwealth government and the coalition both supported a motion by the (conservative) National Party calling on Australia to “use all political, diplomatic, and legal tools at its disposal” to ensure that the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) is not applied to Australian aircraft.

For a moment, it appears, aviation brought the Commonwealth government and the opposition together on climate change policy—no matter that, subsequently, it appeared that the Commonwealth would not join a World Trade Organisation challenge to the EU ETS as it applied to aviation.

The Commonwealth’s support for the motion was additionally curious because, while international airlines (led by those in the US and China) oppose the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS and unsuccessfully challenged its legality in the European Court of Justice last year, Qantas is complying with its EU ETS obligations and passes on its costs through ticket surcharges.

Qantas also faces carbon pricing in New Zealand and will likely participate in the Commonwealth’s ETS from mid-2013 through an ‘opt-in’ scheme.

And, like Qantas, aircraft leasing firms, it appears, are also taking account of the legality of the EU ETS. Such firms, according to the US Environmental Defense Fund, are including provisions in aircraft leases that state that lessees will operate aircraft in compliance with the EU ETS, and will bear the costs of non-compliance.

The main object of the Commonwealth’s climate change legislation is to give effect to Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto) and to support a global response to address the climate change problem.

Under Kyoto, developed state parties to it ‘shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases … from aviation … working through the International Civil Aviation Organization’ (ICAO). In other words, aviation is excluded from Kyoto. It leaves the aviation emissions problem up to ICAO, a UN agency.

Since Kyoto entered into force, however, ICAO has failed to reach any kind of consensus on a comprehensive approach to aviation and climate change. And yet it is the Commonwealth’s position—and the position of many other states—that ICAO remains the appropriate forum for the resolution of the international aviation emissions problem.

It is also the failure of ICAO in terms of aviation that led to the EU taking action to include aviation in its ETS. And yet ICAO, late last year, endorsed a paper approved by the US, China and India (and it takes a lot to bring these states together on a climate change matter) which called on the EU to exclude non-EU carriers from the EU ETS.

Further, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that would make it unlawful for US airlines to comply with the EU law, the effect being that an airline flying to and from Europe would break either an EU law or a federal US law. And a US Senate committee last month advanced legislation (the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act) that would enable the US transportation secretary to prohibit participation in the EU ETS by US airlines.

And all of this against a background (on IPCC calculations) where aviation’s contribution to total emissions, estimated at 3%, could be as low as 2% or as high as 8%. And its contribution is growing.

There are good arguments to be made that, given unsuccessful international climate change negotiations through the UNFCCC and Kyoto, one alternative approach is to break the climate change problem up into different pieces (or industry sectors) and perhaps more effectively address the pieces in separate fora—a ‘bottom-up’ approach, as it were.

The international aviation experience to date regarding emissions does not bode well for even this approach. Nor does recent domestic aviation experience in the United States and Australia.

David Hodgkinson is an associate professor at the University of Western Australia and an aviation lawyer with national law firm Clayton Utz. He leads an international project which seeks to address the climate change displacement problem.

Kyoto is Dead-Long Live New Climate Change Arrangements

Failure at the Copenhagen and Cancun climate change conferences in 2009 and 2010 can be put down, broadly, to two reasons: concerns by developing countries about what binding emission reduction targets might mean for their economic development, and the deadlock over post-2012 targets for developed countries.

And it seems unlikely that, for the present, major emitters – developed or developing – will enter binding agreements to reduce emissions. 

The core issue, raised by Todd Stern, the US climate change negotiator, is a struggle between those developed states who want to continue the UNFCCC/Kyoto separation between developed countries with targets and developing countries without them, and ‘those who believe we can only address climate change with all major economies accepting responsibilities.’

As Stern notes, the need for all major emitters to shoulder climate commitments is clear –‘just do the math,’ he says. ‘Developing countries account for around 52% of emissions, now, and are projected to account for approximately 66% by 2030. They will produce some 97% in the growth of emissions between now and 2030.’

This is brought home through the latest IEA statistics on global CO2 emissions. In 2009 China and the US (both without Kyoto targets) counted together for 41% of the world’s emissions.  Two-thirds of global emissions came from just 10 countries – with, of course, China and the US surpassing those of all the others.

Yet Japan, Russia and Canada have said they will not extend cuts beyond December 31, 2012 unless all major emitters – led by China and the United States – sign up for a binding deal.  And that won’t happen at either Durban in the weeks ahead or anytime soon.

Perhaps an alternative approach to moving forward would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces. If the UNFCCC deadlock continues – and all signs suggest that it will – perhaps contemplating a regime in which groups of like-minded countries address particular issues, and in which countries and regional groupings take action on their own, might be possible.

As one commentator said recently, ‘since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available.’

Two US academics propose a climate change ‘regime complex’ – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes. They say that efforts to ‘build an effective, legitimate, and adaptable comprehensive regime are unlikely to succeed,’ and argue that a climate change regime complex has advantages in terms of adaptability and flexibility. And others refer to a ‘building blocks’ approach.

And there is state-based action, both actual and proposed, on which to build. US states and Canadian provinces collaborate on action to address climate change. California will have an ETS from 2013. South Korea plans an ETS in 2015. China has reduced the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of GDP faster than any other major economy.

Perhaps momentum favours a ‘bottom-up’ outcome.  Perhaps, post-Durban, we will see a shift away from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach. As Posner and Weisbach (from the University of Chicago) argue, ‘Copenhagen showed the futility of addressing poverty, past injustices and climate change in a single negotiation … no principle of justice requires that these problems be addressed simultaneously or multilaterally.’

Saying Yes to Nuclear: Part II

An earlier post set out the climate change problem. This post sets the role of nuclear power, or nuclear energy, in addressing that problem. My argument is that nuclear power (with renewable energy) is an important option for achieving electricity production with a small carbon footprint – for reducing emissions.

2. The role of nuclear power in addressing the climate change problem

Climate change mitigation involves reducing emissions, reducing the rate and magnitude of global warming. Adaptation means coping with or adjusting to climate change. With mitigation, adaptation becomes easier. It has been said that the need to mitigate, to reduce emissions, to address the climate change problem has ‘given a whole new lease of life to – or at least one new argument for – nuclear power.’ James Hansen, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, has said that

“[t]he scientific method requires that we keep an open mind and change our conclusions when new evidence indicates that we should. The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change, specifically the urgency of moving beyond fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources.”

Nuclear power, as the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies’ David Buchan notes, is the only major source of carbon-free electricity with a proven record of power generation on the scale required.

As of January 2011 there are 441 nuclear reactors in operation. Today there are 62 nuclear reactors under construction, mainly in Brazil, Russia, India and China, with 158 more on order or planned and another 324 proposed, according to World Nuclear Association data from just before Fukushima. China, with 13 reactors in operation, has 27 more under construction and was planning or proposing another 160. India was planning or proposing 58, and Russia 44 (see Muriel Boselli and Geert De Clerq, ‘Nuclear’s trillion dollar question,’ for these figures).

I don’t plan to revisit arguments for and against nuclear power, but I would like to make some brief observations regarding three of those arguments.

(a)        Expense and cost

It is claimed that producing nuclear power is too expensive compared with alternatives.  As Alex Coram and I have argued, however, this is correct only if the claim is taken to mean that it costs roughly the same as power produced by coal if the damage to the environment from coal is passed on as a hidden cost to society as a whole.  It’s incorrect if it is meant that it is more expensive when the social benefits are included.

It is also claimed that private investors are reluctant to build nuclear power stations because they are not commercially viable if only short run returns are considered.  This is correct. One reason is that most nuclear power stations have a life span in excess of 60 to perhaps 80 years. Although society can receive the benefit of this long production life, it’s difficult for private investors looking for a return on capital in 10 to 15 years to capture it.  Short run private returns from low capital cost alternatives like coal, oil and wind are better for profits. In this context a good deal of the so-called ‘subsidy’ for nuclear power is simply an attempt by governments to capture this long-term return.

(b)       Waste from nuclear reactors

As Professor David MacKay of Cambridge University notes,

“the volume of waste from nuclear reactors is relatively small.  Whereas the ash from ten coal-fired power stations would have a mass of four million tons per year (having a volume of roughly 40 litres per person per year), the nuclear waste from Britain’s ten nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 litres per person per year – think of that as a bottle of wine per person per year …

Most of this waste is low-level waste.  7% is intermediate-level waste, and just 3% of it – 25 ml per year – is high-level waste.”

Professor MacKay calls this high-level waste ‘the really nasty stuff.’ 

High-level waste needs to be secured for about 1000 years. As Professor MacKay notes, however, “the volumes are so small … [that] nuclear waste is only a minor worry, compared with all the other forms of waste we are inflicting on future generations.  At 25 ml per year, a lifetime’s worth of high-level nuclear waste would amount to less than 2 litres.”

(c)        Civilian versus military exploitation

Another argument made is that it is impossible to distinguish between the civilian and military exploitation of nuclear energy and that, as a result, ‘any promotion of civilian nuclear power will inevitably promote its use for military purposes.’ As Griffith University’s Professor Andrew O’Neil argues, however,

“there are serious flaws in this argument. Since 1945, global nuclear proliferation dynamics have remained largely disconnected from the civilian nuclear industry. Every nuclear weapons program since … the US Manhattan Project has been the product of dedicated military reactors rather than an offshoot of civilian programs. Fissile materials for nuclear weapons development programs are the product of special-purpose reactors, not a corollary of civilian reactor programs, whose mix of nuclear fuel is specifically calibrated for generating electricity and other utility outputs … There is simply no historical evidence to support the proposition that civilian nuclear reactor programs fuel weapons proliferation.”

3.  Maximising our options

Nuclear energy is viewed as a means to power economic growth without carbon emissions. But there are costs and issues. These include effective and efficient legal and regulatory frameworks; financing; capacity to construct nuclear power plants; and management and disposal of radioactive waste.

Commonwealth Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson released a report late last year suggesting nuclear power would be cheaper than coal-fired power stations and renewable energy. Nonetheless, as John Daley and the University of Melbourne’s Professor David Jamieson have noted, it’s not certain how much nuclear will cost to set up in Australia, and whether – at some future point – it will be more or less expensive than renewables.  Daley and Jamieson argue that

“[t]he optimal response to uncertainty is usually to maximise your options (provided they are cheap to buy), and then try to delay exercising these options until the outcome is clearer …

Australia doesn’t have a nuclear option.  Basic institutions and regulations are not in place; planning has not been done.  Given the inevitably long lead times for setting up nuclear power regulation, planning and construction, it will take at least 15 years … before the first nuclear power plant comes into operation [in Australia].  And this start date will be delayed if we do not develop the institutions, legal and regulatory frameworks and skills base today, and start resolving concerns about safety, security and waste.

Getting these things in place does not commit Australia to nuclear power, but does enable us to start building more quickly if it emerges that nuclear power will indeed be substantially cheaper than the alternatives.

The concern is, if we do not prepare a nuclear option, then when the world gets serious about deep cuts to carbon emissions, Australia may be forced to use relatively expensive renewable technologies that can be deployed more quickly, resulting in significantly higher power prices than the rest of the world.”

4.  Conclusion

David Buchan argues that only the combined efforts of the nuclear and renewable energy sectors are going to take us to a low-carbon economy. He also makes a good case – as others do, of course – for natural gas, if only on a transitional basis. ‘Pragmatism,’ he says, ‘rather than dogmatism’ is necessary. ‘Remember, too,’ he says,

“that a properly workable energy policy for the future will be composed of a multiplicity of energy sources and efficiencies. It will be a policy of this … and this … and this …”

In the context of international climate change negotiations this bears some resemblance to what Keohane and Victor refer to as a climate change ‘regime complex’ – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes rather than a ‘single, central over-arching treaty’ such as the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol. And perhaps momentum now favours a ‘bottom-up’ outcome; the Cancun climate change conference might suggest a shift away from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach in reducing emissions, to action by individual states.

Cambridge University’s Professor MacKay, to whom I referred earlier, writes that ‘getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes’ and that, given the tendency of the public to say no to nuclear power and ‘anything other than fossil fuel power systems,’ he is worried

“that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: … a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations … We need to stop saying no and start saying yes. We need to … get building.”

It’s a sentiment with which Professor James Hansen, a supporter of third and fourth generation nuclear power, would agree:

“If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions  … the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions.  Life will survive, but it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.”

Saying Yes to Nuclear: One Option to Mitigate Climate Change


I set out here the climate change problem and the role of nuclear power, or nuclear energy, in addressing that problem. My argument is that nuclear power (with renewable energy) is an important option for achieving electricity production with a small carbon footprint – for reducing emissions. As a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009 makes clear,

“the motivation to make more use of nuclear power is greater [than ever], and more rapid progress is needed in enabling the option of nuclear power expansion to play a role in meeting the global warming challenge. The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

The climate change problem: ‘How rapidly can we cut carbon emissions if civilisation is at stake?’

In explaining the science of climate change, the Australian National University’s Professor Andrew Glikson – an earth and paleo-climate scientist – states that the recent history of the atmosphere, which includes human-induced global warming, may lead toward mass extinction of species: On a ‘business-as-usual scenario,’ continuation of greenhouse gas emissions ‘will result in global warming of 3°C over the 21st century, eliminating a majority (60%) of species on the planet.’ He asks whether the human species is leading the biosphere to its sixth mass extinction.

A US study by MIT finds that, absent policy action, also on a business-as-usual course, the median probability of surface warming is 5.2°C by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees, compared to a median projected increase in an earlier 2003 MIT study of just 2.4 degrees – that is, twice as severe.

And while there is no international consensus on what levels of climate change might be defined as ‘dangerous,’ there is widespread support for containing the rise in global temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (known as the ‘2°C guardrail’); parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have adopted this global warming limit, with some of the most vulnerable states – small island states, for example – calling for temperature targets as low as 1.5°C. Even with temperature rises of less than 2°C, however, impacts can be significant, and beyond 2°C, ‘the possibilities for adaptation of society and ecosystems rapidly decline …’

The urgency of all this is further reinforced by a study by Meinshausen and others which finds that GHG emissions must be cut by more than 50% by 2050 as against 1990 levels if the danger of exceeding 2°C is to be limited to 25%. Meinshausen has said that

“[i]n principle, it is the sum of all CO2 that matters. In practice, substantial reductions in global emissions have to begin soon, before 2020. If we wait any longer, the required phase-out of carbon emissions will involve tremendous economic costs and technological challenges – miles beyond what can be considered politically feasible today. The longer we wait, the more likely our path will lead us into dangerous territory.”

For the Royal Society, sufficient climate change mitigation actions might well not be introduced in time:

“It is likely that global warming will exceed 2°C this century unless global greenhouse gas emissions are cut by at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2050, and by more thereafter. There is no credible emissions scenario under which global mean temperature would peak and then start to decline by 2100. Unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful then they have been so far, additional action may be required should it become necessary to cool the Earth this century.”

Such additional action according to the Royal Society might involve geoengineering – deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system ‘in order to moderate global warming.’ And ‘geoengineering’ in the form of techniques for extracting atmospheric CO2 has also been considered by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber who, in the course of reviewing an article by Ramanathan and Feng in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences –  in which they suggest that the earth is already committed to anthropogenic warming in the range of 1.4-4.3°C (where 2.4°C is the most likely amount) and that no conceivable international strategy can avoid largely unmanageable climate impacts – says that

“[m]y conclusion is that we are still left with a fair chance to hold the 2°C line, yet the race between climate dynamics and climate policy will be a close one … However, the quintessential challenges remain, namely bending down the global Kyoto-GHG output curve in the 2015–2020 window (further procrastination would render necessary reduction gradients too steep thereafter) and phasing out carbon dioxide emissions completely by 2100. This requires an industrial revolution for sustainability starting now.”

Finally, the importance of early (or shorter-term) reductions is made by Parry and his colleagues:

“[W]e now have the knowledge to make a more informed choice regarding the optimal balance between mitigation and adaptation, and we know that immediate investment in adaptation will be essential to buffer the worst impacts. This does not mean that mitigation can be delayed, but quite the opposite: the longer we delay mitigation, the more likely it is that global change will exceed our capacity to adapt.”

As Gwynne Dyer asks, ‘how rapidly can we cut emissions if civilisation is at stake?’ And it’s that question, and the need to mitigate, which puts into context any examination of the role of nuclear power in cutting emissions. 

This post (with footnotes omitted) is based on a paper delivered last week in Perth at the Australian Uranium Conference. Please contact the author for details of sources cited.

A second post by the same author, forthcoming here shortly, will expand on this theme and will specify how nuclear power can help address climate change. This post, in turn, will be followed by one or more “counterpoint” posts.

A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change

Climate change displacement refers to population migration caused by the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, heavier floods, more frequent and severe storms, drought and desertification.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank and many other organisations warn that the effects of climate change will cause large-scale population movements. Climate displacement presents an urgent problem for the international community.

The existence and scope of such displacement are often established by reference to the likely numbers of displaced people. The most cited estimate is 200 million climate change migrants by 2050 or one person in every forty-five.

There is a broad consensus among lawyers considering the issue of climate change migration that current protections at international law do not adequately provide for a number of the categories of persons likely to be displaced by climate change.  International refugee lawyers generally agree that persons displaced by climate change would not be the subject of protection under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the ‘Refugee Convention’) and its 1967 Protocol. 

Further, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) does not contemplate or address the issue of displacement; the UNFCCC provides a framework for future action and cooperation by states on climate change; its Kyoto Protocol places quantifiable obligations upon states to decrease their levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Displacement is not a focus of the UNFCCC; its concerns lie elsewhere. Its structure and institutions are not designed to address displacement and the issues associated with it. Moreover, as the Copenhagen and Cancun climate change conferences reveal, the UNFCCC cannot easily be altered in order to accommodate climate change displaced persons; dealing with existing provisions is already problematic.

Finally, there has been no coordinated response by governments to address human displacement, whether domestic or international, temporary or permanent, due to climate change. Given the nature and magnitude of the problem which climate change displacement presents, ad hoc measures based on existing domestic regimes are likely to lead to inconsistency, confusion and conflict. We believe the international community has an obvious interest in resolving the problem of human displacement in an orderly and coordinated fashion before climate change displacement becomes a problem.

Our proposal

We propose a multilateral Convention to address climate change displacement – an issue which is global in its causes, scope and consequences. The Convention would provide a general framework for assistance to climate change displaced persons (what we call CCDPs), and would address gaps in current human rights, refugee and humanitarian law protections for CCDPs.

Our proposal is based on the following principles and deals with the following matters, all of which are more fully set out at our project website,

  • Most people made homeless by climate change are expected to stay within their home countries. The Convention would encompass those displaced within states and those who cross international borders.
  • Persons displaced within state borders would be subject to a framework of protection and assistance in which obligations would be shared between the home state and the international community. In the case of CCDPs who have migrated across state borders, the Convention would outline the rights and obligations of the CCDP and the home and host states.
  • The poorest countries in the world are likely to experience the most severe impacts of global warming. The Convention would provide for contributions to a fund for climate change displacement by developed state parties based upon the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.
  • We recognise that current levels of scientific knowledge create causality issues regarding the extent to which climate change contributes to a particular weather event or population movement. The Convention would adopt a ‘very likely’ standard (greater than 90% probability) to identify certain phenomena and trends as consistent with climate change and human contribution. In addition, the Convention would address the causality issues associated with the multi-factorial nature of population movements by adopting an objective rather than a subjective approach to determining the influence of climate change on relocation patterns.
  • Instead of assigning rights and protections on the basis of the individual satisfaction of definitional criteria, as in the Refugee Convention, we believe that en masse designation of CCDP status is more appropriate to the characteristics of climate change migration.
  • Because of the necessity of integrating complex issues of causality and evolving science into decision-making in respect of climate change migration, our proposal involves the creation of a sophisticated institutional architecture for designating a particular population as CCDPs.
  • The very real prospect of entire states becoming uninhabitable differentiates the plight of small island nations from other regions in which there is likely to be large-scale displacement, and requires specific consideration. We propose that the principles of proximity, self-determination and the safe-guarding of intangible culture should be applicable to bilateral displacement agreements between threatened island nations and host states, such agreements to be negotiated under the aegis of the Climate Change Displacement Organisation (CCDO), the organisation established under the Convention.

The Convention would largely operate prospectively; assistance to CCDPs would be based on an assessment of whether their environment was likely to become uninhabitable due to events consistent with anthropogenic climate change such that resettlement measures and assistance were necessary.  In other words, we view displacement as a form of adaptation that creates particular vulnerabilities requiring protection as well as assistance through international cooperation. Our Convention contemplates the provision of pre-emptive resettlement to those most at risk in terms of the impacts of climate change.

Small island nations

Rising sea levels and the possibility of small island nations becoming uninhabitable are perhaps the most publicly recognisable consequences of climate change. As one author notes, ‘their small physical size, exposure to natural disasters and climate extremes, very open economies and low adaptive capacity make them particularly susceptible and less resilient to climate change.’ The populations of such small island nations may not only be displaced but may see the effective disappearance of their homelands. As a result, although they will amount only to a fraction of the total number of likely CCDPs, the interests and expectations of the populations of these threatened island nations have a high profile.

The possibility of effective loss of homelands differentiates the plight of small island nations from other regions in which there is likely to be large-scale displacement, and requires specific consideration. Loss of a physical territory may signal the practical end of those states’ national sovereignty and the particular protections and rights of their people. More broadly, it may signify the end of unique ways of life which are intimately connected to precarious physical landscapes. Such a scenario is unprecedented, and existing legal regimes do not adequately articulate the rights that should be accorded to CCDPs from small island nations in order to recognise this loss. We propose the principles of proximity, self-determination and the safe-guarding of intangible culture should be applicable to bilateral displacement agreements between such island nations and host states, such agreements to be negotiated under the aegis of the CCDO.

Conclusion: ‘Will the tiger get me?’

It has been suggested that Australia should take the lead in international efforts to develop a framework for responding to climate change displacement. The broader region in which Australia is situated accounts for 60% of the world’s population; it is also a region that will be significantly affected by the effects of climate change. And, as has been noted, planning for a future of mass displacement due to climate change gives us the opportunity – before millions of people are on the move throughout the world because of climate change – … to develop frameworks and institutions that might not only be politically realistic, but also based on principles that promote human rights and dignity.

Our Convention is, again, in many ways prospective. It would establish a framework within which adaptive assistance to those vulnerable to climate change impacts could be provided. The protection of CCDPs requires large-scale, long-term planning.  This in itself presents challenges because, as has been noted with reference to one particular country perhaps most at risk from the effects of climate change, Bangladeshis think mainly of tomorrow. Will there be enough rice? Enough clean drinking water? Will the tiger get me? All of us have the same human tendency to plan for the next day, next week, next year. Projecting … developments 10, 20, 50 years into the future is a chancy business, as imprecise a science in its way as the modelling of climate change. But those are undoubtedly the terms, and the timescales, on which we now have to think.


For more information on the CCDP convention project please contact David Hodgkinson on +61 402 824 832 or at The project website is