Australian Climate Report Just 'Early Thinking'

Climate change loomed as a critical issue in the Nov. 24 Australian election as voters in major cities faced water restrictions while those farming in regional areas battled the worst drought in living memory. (Photo: Greg Wood / AFP-Getty Images)

The federal Labor government has sought to play down the call made by its chief climate change policy adviser for it to go well beyond its target of a 60 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In an interim report released on Feb. 21, Professor Ross Garnaut said that by 2050 global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced to 90 percent of 2000 levels if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided.

An economics professor based at the Australian National University, Garnaut was commissioned last April by the Labor state and territory governments to prepare a report on the impact of climate change on the Australian economy and a review of climate change policy. After its election in November, the federal Labor government joined the Garnaut climate change review.

Garnaut presented a 63-page interim report—available at—to a meeting of state premiers in Adelaide on Feb. 21. He told the premiers that global CO2 emissions from the burning of hydrocarbon fuels, particularly coal and oil, had accelerated sharply over the last six years—from 1.1 percent a year on average in 1990-91 to 3.1 percent per year in 2000-06. Without urgent action, they were likely to continue growing rapidly.

"Without action we are running towards dangerous points more quickly than a lot of the earlier analysis has suggested," Garnaut told a media conference, adding, "We don't have time to lose."

South Australian premier Mike Rann told reporters that Garnaut had presented the world with a very sobering picture. Garnaut's interim report had concluded that "in the last five years and certainly since the modeling done by Sir Nicholas Stern, things are much worse for the world in terms of global warming than previously believed," he said.

Western Australian premier Alan Carpenter said: "What Ross Garnaut has done is basically tell us, 'less time than you thought, more action than you thought, maybe in a shorter space of time.' There needs to be a sense of urgency."

In his interim report Garnaut warned that, due to its large agricultural sector, the Australian economy was at greater risk of rising global temperatures than many other developed countries. Farmers would want money to leave the land, and the ships that now carry food exports would be bringing food in, he predicted. However, he argued that Australia's extravagance with energy meant early and big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could easily be made.

According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (A.B.S.), released on Feb. 6 in its 2008 Year Book, Australia puts into the atmosphere 17.5 tons of carbon dioxide per capita per year, compared to the rich country average of 11.1 tons.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, which the previous Howard government signed but never ratified, and which the Rudd government ratified shortly after coming into office in December, Australia was set a target of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 108 percent of 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. The Howard government had consistently claimed Australia was on track to meet this target.

The ABS Year Book said that by 2005, carbon emissions from electricity production, which accounts for about 70 percent of the nation's total emissions, had increased by 36 percent on 1990 levels.

Federal climate change minister Penny Wong told the media on Feb. 21 that while the Rudd government "welcomed" Garnaut's interim report as an "important input," it would also be "looking at other inputs, such as modeling from the Australian treasury" department. Wong described Garnaut's interim report as "early thinking" on the policy response to climate change.

"Obviously, unlike the previous government, we have said we would be cognizant of the science," she told reporters. "But the government's commitment is the one we made prior to the election and that we took to the Australian people, which is a reduction of 60 percent by 2050. That is the approach the government will take."

"Penny Wong has reduced Ross Garnaut to input," Greens leader Senator Bob Brown observed. "There are huge vested interests at play here—the coal industry, the aluminum industry, the forest logging industry—and it's up to the Rudd government to put this country ahead of those vested interests."

Garnaut is due to release his full report in September.

From Green Left Weekly.