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the path to Copenhagen « Previous | |Next »
May 28, 2009

Though the Stern Review on climate change, written for Gordon Brown in 2006, had nothing new to say about the science of global warming, Nicholas Stern did rewrite the story in the language of economics. It is the problem of externality that is global and a market failure to price the damage done. Setting aside a more hostile climate (crashing ice sheets, spreading deserts and super-hurricanes), he warned of an economic crisis 10 times worse than the one we are experiencing now.

That shift to economics was important since prime ministers and ministers usually react to scientific and environmental alarms with incomprehension and give the task to a junior minister cos they see their job as keeping the economy afloat and the growth machine ticking over. So by changing the language Stern made climate change the business of the G20 and the UN security council, not just environment ministers.

The response by the energy, mining and high energy industries to the "cap and trade" system, in which carbon is priced and permits to emit climate-warming gases are rationed, auctioned and traded (thereby lining up the science and the economics to show how the economy can decarbonise itself) has been to come up with "totally implausible" cost estimates for climate change. The second argument is that Australia should do nothing until a global agreement at Copenhagen is signed, sealed and delivered. They fully expect a big failure at Copenhagen, with China and India being the deal breakers. So there is no need to do anything in Australia.

Their story is an anti-growth one, as they explicitly reject the idea of combining growth with cutting emissions to give us low carbon growth. The high carbon growth, advocated by the Minerals Council, cannot be a growth story for much longer, given the cost of carbon and the physical destruction of the planet. The arguments from those who deny the science look more and more like those who denied the association between HIV and Aids or smoking and cancer. Their assumption is that they have the right to destroy the commons.

Nicholas Stern’s lecture at LSE, which was based on his book A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, made two key points. On the science side, the main point was the recognition that the Stern Review underplayed the risks. He cited figures from the Hadley Centre showing that, under business as usual, CO2e concentrations, currently 435ppm, might get to 750ppm or more by the end of our century, which means it is “likely” there will be a 5.5-degree temperature increase. This would mean floods, droughts, crop failures, mass migration, major political conflicts, etc---a transformation of the planet.

The second point is that the understanding and the ability to respond to climate change has deepened. So he is optimistic:

[If] emissions have grown faster than we had assumed and the buffering capacity of the planet has lessened, [then] the pace of technological change has been faster than expected and the level of political commitment is now stronger than it was 2-3 years ago... We will be at 450ppm CO2* within 6 or 7 years anyhow, but it’s possible to hold levels below 500ppm and to then come down from there.

The main points of Stern's blueprint are:

- -We need to keep under 500ppm, or 20 gigatones/yr. For a world of 9 billion people in 2050, that means 2 tonnes/yr/person (the typical UK person emits 10+ tonnes/yr)
- -Considering historic emission stocks, citizens of developed countries should actually have a quota of zero, and pay for their 2 tonnes through trading schemes
- -Pricing CO2 externalities is fundamental and emissions trading has a role to play, but the main parts of the strategy are: energy efficiency, low and zero carbon technologies, carbon capture and a halt to deforestation
- -The developed world should pay for avoided deforestation, but the developing world should be in charge of laying down the conditions. Technology transfer to the developing world is also key.
- -Overall, measures would cost 1%-2% of global GDP to begin with, less in the future as technologies evolve and oil prices rise. And most of this cost is actually investment, which will generate more growth.

The lecture should be required listening for those politicians who say that cutting emissions must be postponed because of the global economic crisis. That's defeatism---we stay with high carbon growth and do a lot of damage from a more hostile climate---rather than attempting to lay the foundations and the challenge is to translate that into developing a strategic plan of action for low carbon growth. That requires an effective and equitable global deal in which the developed countries wear the brunt of responsibility for the flow stock problem.

Hence the global deal requires 80% target reductions for developed countries, carbon trading, sharing of renewable technologies, and stopping the deforestation in developing countries.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:05 AM | | Comments (3)


Stern's LSE lecture is very informative. A 5.5-degree temperature increase is a huge shift. It is a large probability of happening within a hundred years. The risks for us are high--hence Stern's idea of risk analysis. We can’t eliminate the risk of dangerous climate change, but we can bring down those risks.

The risks means that much of Australia will become more desert like, others underwater, others battered by hurricanes, coastlines change, rivers change. That will shape where our cities are.

We are adding to the current stock of greenhouse gases by 2-3% per year---so we get 450 parts per million in the next 5-6 years from where we are now. That means we have to cut global emissions by 50% to get it down to a 20 giga (billion) tons and live with 3% increase in temperature. Business as usual gives us 85 (billion) giga tons.

I do not think that Canberra sees the opportunity for a green recovery from the economic downturn, even if the severity of the climate change (increased flow and increased stock of greenhouse gases is acknowledged in terms of the basic numbers that suggests this a defining problem of the 21st century that requires global co-operation. They don't get the anticipated rewriting of how we live and we live arising from both global warming and climate change.

video of Nicholas Stern at the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford talking about his new book "Blueprint for a Safer Planet".