Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Australia and carbon emissions cuts

Recently I received an email from a friend making an argument against Australia cutting its emissions.

The email started promisingly enough when it pointed out, with a pie graph, that Australia was the world's largest per capita carbon emitter.

The next graph showed total carbon emissions, and Australia appeared in the chart but was not one of the major emitters.

The email went on to note:

I doubt you need me to explain the significance of this........but just in case, it says that even if Australia reduced its emissions to zero, the planet’s atmosphere would hardly notice.

From 2008 – 2009 Australia’s carbon emissions reduced 1.8% without a carbon tax China’s increased by 13.3% and India’s by 8.7%.

No-one denies the climate is changing, it has been doing so throughout its existence. What causes it – who knows, where was the carbon dioxide coming from in previous warm periods between the ice ages?

Trying to stop the change is probably futile. We need to take steps to mitigate the changes.

If you meet Julia or Ross, have a question or two ready!

I don't know exactly what Julia or Ross would say but my response is as follows:

There are 8 basic problems with the thrust of the arguments in this email.

1. It is welcome that the email acknowledged that Australia is a major carbon emitter per person. Unfortunately the email did not consider the implications of this state of affairs. The fact that we are one of the major per capita emitters puts us in the international spot light. This is a point that Malcolm Turnbull, an important conservative politician made in a recent speech:

Australia generates most of its electricity from burning coal – much of it very emissions intensive brown coal in Victoria or South Australia. That is why our carbon dioxide emissions are among the highest in the world on a per capita basis – a reason why the Chinese (whose emissions are about one-fifth of ours) and the Indians (whose are less than one-tenth of ours) find our regular references to their emissions – and why should we do anything until the Chinese or Indians do something – why they find those references incredibly galling. Those of us, and David’s a member of this club with me, who have represented Australia at international conferences on this, know how incredibly embarrassing statements like that are when you actually confront the representatives of those countries.

2. Although Australia does not emit the huge amounts of carbon that China and the US do, we are still a significant emitter, ranking at number 16 out of 216 countries in the world.

3. The argument that we have only a small influence in the world at large is not one that is used by responsible people in other contexts. For example, should we cut out our International Aid because we can afford only a tiny fraction of the total aid donated by other countries? Australia ranks 16th in foreign aid by Gross National Income but I don't hear anyone claiming that Australia should not give any foreign aid because it is tiny compared to the world total and that of other countries.

For people who are not convinced by the previous paragraph, because they object to Australia's participation in foreign aid, the same argument could be made about Australia's participation in wars such as WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

4. Just because other countries are misbehaving, does not justify our misbehavior.

Here is an analogy from normal life. I live in a retirement village where we have a communal pool. Imagine a circumstance where I take my grandchildren to the pool, and they misbehave. I call them over and point out that they should stop their misbehaviour and they reply that other children are also behaving badly. As an adult how should I respond? I expect most adults would tell them that the misbehavour of other children does not justify their misbehaviour. The next step would be to have a talk to the adults supervising the other children and ask them to keep their kids in order.

That is a simple moral point that we make to children and it applies also on the International Stage. Just because other countries are misbehaving does not justify our misbehaviour and when we have got our house in order we can join the other responsible countries in putting pressure on the countries dragging their feet. As the Conservative British Prime Minister said the Australian Government's plans to place a price on carbon emissions: "will add momentum to those, in both the developed and developing world, who are serious about dealing with this urgent threat".

5. The argument that our emissions are so small that they don't make any difference to global temperatures could be used by almost every other country. If every country took this attitude then no progress would be made. Even China could mount a variant of the argument, claiming correctly that over 75 percent of emissions is caused by other countries, and that the vast majority of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was caused by the developed countries. We have a classic Tragedy of the Commons problem.

6. The attack on China in the email implies that China is doing nothing to reduce its carbon emissions - this is not true. China is taking active steps to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy. Its carbon intensity target reduction for 2020 is 40 to 45%. It has published plans to reduce its carbon intensity by 2015 by 16%. It is also planning to trial an emissions trading system in 2015 - the current proposal by the Australian Government is often called a "Carbon Tax" but it is actually an emissions trading scheme. The reason why Chinese emissions are expected to continue growing even though carbon intensity is declining is because of the dramatic growth of the Chinese economy. See here and here for details. China is taking these steps in part because of the dangers of excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but also as a method of modernising her economy see here and here for details.

7. Although there has been climate change in the past, it does not automatically follow (as implied in the email) that our current activities are safe. The very people (climate scientists) who investigate past climate variations are the very people who are telling us that our current activities are very dangerous.

The video below describes the findings of climate scientists over the past 20 years regarding past climate changes. It also indicates the sorts of mistakes made by climate deniers (like Bob Carter).

For a very detailed look at past climates and the processes that change climate see this post, which provides a great deal of evidence that carbon dioxide is the biggest control knob in determining climate.

The argument that our current activities are unsafe is grounded on climate sensitivity - ie the sensitivity of the climate to changes in carbon dioxide. If the climate is quite sensitive then our current activities are very dangerous leading to a significant increase of global temperature. One of the major methods of determining climate sensitivity is by studying past climates. To make the point as simply as possible: scientists studying past climate variations have determined a level of climate sensitivity that means continued increases in carbon dioxide will be very dangerous for our descendents.

For more information about climate sensitivity see this link.

7. The argument that we can't do anything about our current climate problem might turn out to be right. According to James Hanson (at this link) we are well beyond safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If Hanson is right, not only do we have to stop carbon emissions very quickly but we also have to find ways of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

One solution to our current dilemma is renewable energy systems, but some writers argue that while we have to get off fossil fuels renewable energy will not provide a enough energy to power growth in the future. See this link for a series of posts discussing this issue.

The argument that we can't do anything about climate change appearing in a denialist email is ironic. We would have had a much better chance of dealing with the problems we face if we had started working on the problem 10 years ago. A major reason why little has been done in some major developed countries (Australia, USA and Canada) is because of the unremitting campaign to find arguments (any arguments) against action that is being run by vested interests and ideologues.

8. The comment in the email, We need to take steps to mitigate the changes is quite strange. Mitigate means to make or become milder, less severe, less rigorous, or less painful; moderate. It seems to me that the process proposed by the government is all about mitigation.

I expect what the author of the email meant was adaption rather than mitigation. Given the pickle we have created, mitigation (reducing carbon emissions) and adaption (taking steps to reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems to climate change) are both necessary.

The IPCC working group 2 report is largely concerned with adaption. See this link for examples.

9. The comment: What causes it (climate change) who knows? can be easily answered. Climate scientists have determined that the cause of the current warming is excessive carbon dioxide emitted by humanity. Here is an article that presents ten lines of evidence supporting the view that the primary cause of the current warming is human activities. The article references fourteen peer reviewed articles to support its argument. Here is another readable article.

10. The question where was the carbon dioxide coming from in previous warm periods between the ice ages? has also been effectively answered by Climate Scientists.

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