Taking Stern seriously

21 Nov 2006

Poll after poll has shown the depth of community concern, writes John Spoehr

THE global political climate is heating up in response to a new report on the global economic impact of climate change. The British government’s Stern Review has transformed the debate on climate change from one largely focused on environmental impacts to one concerned about the threat to economic growth. It is a message designed to strike fear into growth loving governments and corporations:

This is the greatest market failure the world has seen.

If no action is taken to reduce emissions, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could reach double its pre-industrial level as early as 2035, virtually committing us to a global average temperature rise of over 2°C. In the longer term, there would be a 50 per cent chance that the temperature rise would exceed 5°C. This would be very dangerous indeed: it is the equivalent to the change in the physical geography from the last ice age to today. Such radical change in the physical geography of the world must lead to major changes in the human geography.

Stern argues that a low carbon strategy is compatible with economic growth. To some extent he is right. Certainly it will create a market for a myriad of environmental products and services but it is unlikely that the transition from a high carbon economy to a low carbon economy will be expeditious. While some visionary governments and corporations will make a rapid transition to a low carbon economy, many will resist change in the absence of regulation and mandatory targets. A fundamental problem with the Stern Review is that the expectation of sustained economic growth that it creates is not compatible with significant short term reduction in greenhouse gases, certainly of the magnitude required to get climate change under control.

We cannot ignore the reality that our economic growth fetish has fuelled climate change over the last hundred years. To make significant inroads into greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades we need to moderate our growth expectations rather than rely on technological fixes. It will take decades for the benefits of the technological solutions being canvassed to be fully realised on a global scale. A political as well as a technological solution is required - an acknowledgment that high rates of economic growth are not compatible with sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions over the short term. The turbo charged capitalism that is currently fuelling unbridled consumption and exploitation of the planet is simply unsustainable. Climate change requires an economics of sustainability rather than exploitation. Climate change demonstrates that there are limits to growth.

We must all take the Stern warning on climate change seriously. The South Australian government has shown some leadership indicating it is serious about climate change by introducing a draft Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Bill. The Bill sets a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state by at least 60 per cent by 2050. It also sets a target of increasing the use of renewable electricity to 20 per cent of total electricity consumption by 2012. These are sound objectives to be delivered through a commitment in the legislation to the development of appropriate policies and programs. South Australia will not be able to meet the challenge on its own. It will need a sympathetic federal government, one willing to sign up to international agreements and commit to ambitious targets rather than avoid them. Ultimately mandatory greenhouse emission targets will be required as part of a comprehensive climate change strategy based on a system of sanctions and rewards. This will require some political climate change. Governments should be emboldened to take action by the depth of community concern about climate change.

Poll after poll has shown the depth of community concern about climate change and the desire for a bold response. A Lowy Institute poll revealed that 68 per cent of people regarded climate change as a “critical threat” to Australia over the next decade. Nearly 70 per cent believed that it was essential to take action now even if this involves high costs. A recent Newspoll found that nearly 80 per cent wanted the Howard Government to sign up to the Kyoto protocol and make a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction targets. Over 90 per cent wanted Australia to shifts its dependence from coal fired power stations to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy sources. Around 80 per cent thought that some form of carbon levy should be imposed on industry from to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A poll undertaken by the South Australian Government found that nearly 70 per cent of those polled were extremely concerned about climate change. Over 80 per cent thought that it was extremely important for South Australia to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent believed that it was extremely important for South Australia to increase its use of renewable forms of energy.

While most in the community believe that climate change is a major threat to the environment and human populations it has taken the Stern Review to focus attention on the economic consequences. This has got the big end of town talking about how to tackle climate change.

John Spoehr is executive director of the Australian Institute for Social Research at the University of Adelaide. This article first appeared in the Adelaide Review.

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