Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Australia's Climate Change Targets and Progress

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where the ANU Climate Change Institute is holding its "First Climate Change Colloquium to Discuss Australia's Targets and Progress". The first speaker is Anthea Harris, CEO of the Australian Government's Climate Change Authority (CCA).

Since the Climate Change Authority was established, the Australian Government has changed. The Australian Department of Environment issued a "Emissions Reduction Fund White Paper",  which expresses the new government's "direct action" approach, which differs from the previous cap-and-trade system. Under the new approach the government will pay organizations to reduce emissions, with a price set through a limited auction, rather than organizations trading permits on a market.

Ms. Harris pointed out that reductions beyond the Government's -5% target for 2020 would be relatively inexpensive. Some measures which could be carried out are to purchase international carbon permits. However, I doubt this would be welcomed in the current political climate with an emphasis on budget savings. Sending money off shore, boosting other countries economies, is unlikely to be adopted by government.

In my view the academic community in Australia is not serving the public interest well on the issue of climate change. There is a prevailing attitude that if scientists simply present the evidence governments will act. The evidence shows this is not the case. Presenting more climate science  evidence is unlikely to help and may well lower the credibility of the scientific community with government and the general public. This is a matter which needs to be addressed by economists, social and political science, it is not a problem of hard science, but of perception.

The current discussion of climate change reminds me of a conversation between a patient and doctor I overheard while in hospital. The doctor explained to the patient that they were seriously ill with liver failure due to excess alcohol consumption. The patent asked when they would be able to have a drink. The doctor explained that if the patient gave up alcoholic completely immediately they may live long enough to get a liver transplant. The patent again asked when they would be able to have a drink. No matter how many times the doctor explained the seriousness of the situation, the patient could not accept they must give up alcohol. Similarly the world needs to give up its addiction to fossil fuel to reduce the extreme harm resulting. However patiently scientists explain this, the addict will not understand and not act. This situation can be changed, but will take the sort of measures used to treat addiction.
I am a member of the ANU Energy Change Institute and teach ICT Sustainability to masters students. They spend some time estimating energy and emissions from ICT, which is relatively easy, them more time on the harder problem of reducing them and then the really hard task of convincing their boss to actually make the required changes.

At the beginning of the year I had to revise my course notes to take into account the new government's approach. This proved to be much easier than I expected. As my students focus on how to estimate energy and emissions, then how to reduce them, the government policy dictating that this should be done does not much matter. While the pricing mechanism will change, it does not appear how emissions are estimated will not.

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