Monday, September 08, 2008

Warning: 450ppm CO2 target would delay doubling of GNP by 6 whole months!

King penguins Criticise him as a utopian leftwing pinko as you wish to, but Clive Hamilton has clearly highlighted how current governing structures and economic practices are ill-equipped to handle climate change legislation.

Hamilton has pointed out that, in Australia at least according to Garnaut's modelling, a target of 450ppm of carbon dioxide is going to delay the doubling of Australia's GNP by only 6 months compared to a target of 550ppm.[source] To state the obvious it is an incredibly trivial delay in the great scheme of things. And the delay compared to having no target whatsoever would still only be 2.5 years.

I used to think enacting major social change was largely a case of causing a swing in public opinion to a critical mass which would in turn result in the necessary changes to policy and legislation. But what about the case where public opinion has shifted in support of change, but the science of the issue is too complex (and dare I say esoteric) that the layperson doesn't have any real idea of political and legal changes required to achieve the outcomes desired by public consensus?

To me this is the problem of legislating to combat climate change and it's a global one. Mass opinion has already shifted. Sure there are still very vocal and otherwise-intelligent skeptics out there but even if they are right (and I don't for one second believe they are) public opinion has overtaken them anyway. The problem is translating public consensus to combat global warming and live sustainably into real and effective policy.

This problem truly makes a case for acknowledging and tackling the economic growth fetish, as Hamilton describes it. In this sense, public opinion still needs some swaying, but this is a much tougher task.

More people need to be exposed to and contemplate the idea of economic growth being a fetish... This way public consciousness relating to climate change could be raised in a way that makes the truly desirable legislatory path (i.e. the one that is in the best interests of society as a whole) clear and obvious.

Related older blogposts by me:
The Clive Hamilton opinion piece came from subscriber article (8 September 2008)[subscriber link] from which I paste large chunks here:
Garnaut bows to the insanity of growth fetishism by Clive Hamilton

The Garnaut report demonstrates how our obsession with economic growth is so powerful that we are unwilling to contemplate sacrificing a tiny amount of consumption now to sharply reduce the risk of climate catastrophe.

The report presents modelling results on the economic implications of stabilising atmospheric concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) versus allowing them to rise to 550 ppm. (The pre-industrial level was 280 ppm of CO2 and we have now reached 387 ppm.)

The 450 ppm target will be accompanied by warming of about 2°C by the end of the century while 550 ppm is likely to see warming of 3°C.

Climate scientists believe that the difference between the two is huge with 550 ppm dramatically increasing the likelihood of catastrophes and runaway climate change – such as an irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet resulting in sea-level rise of 7 metres. That would rule out any chance of returning the atmosphere to a safe level for thousands of years.

Yet Garnaut’s recommendation that the Government aim for a 10% reduction over 2000 levels is based on the belief that stabilizing at 450 ppm is politically infeasible and we must reluctantly accept a 550 ppm world.

How much will pursuing the 550 ppm target cost us in terms of lost income? Garnaut says it will shave a little more than 0.1 per cent from GNP growth through to 2050. This means that instead of growing annually at, say, 2.5 per cent if we do nothing, GNP per person would grow at "only" 2.4 per cent if we aim at 550 ppm. Aiming at 450 ppm would cost only fractionally more.

The welfare cost can best be understood as follows. With an annual real growth rate of 2.5 per cent per person, then with no carbon abatement Australia’s GNP will double by 2040. If from 2012 we aim for the 550 target our GNP will not double until 2049, i.e. we will have to wait an additional two years. And, according to Garnaut's modelling, if we aim for the much safer target of 450, we will have to wait another six months.


The economic impact of pursuing a target of 450 ppm rather than 550 ppm is so small that it will be exceeded by the normal statistical error involved in measuring GNP growth. Yet it seems that this amount is so large that it renders the safe option politically infeasible.


Garnaut himself ... asks "Is it worth paying over the course of the century less than 1 per cent of GNP for the non-market benefits, insurance value and the enhancing value beyond the 21st century of the 450 strategy?"

He says this is a matter of judgment. Anyone who has to give more than a moment’s thought to this choice must be deluded.

Image courtesy of Stephen Leahy.
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