25 July 2010

Climate change forum report issued

In Joint forum on climate change on the Australia21 blog I gave my extemporised summary of a high level group meeting on climate change and Australia’s response to it which was held at the Australian National University on 12 July.

The meeting, hosted by Australia21, Universities Australia and the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development, included some of the nation’s leading climatologists, economists, climate policy experts and representatives of Australian business.

The question under discussion was “What are the best available policy options for reducing greenhouse emissions in Australia in the context of the Copenhagen result and the delay of an Australian CPRS [the government’s proposed emissions trading scheme]?”   

The formal report of the forum has now been issued, and copies have been forwarded to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Greens .  The executive summary appears below. The full report may be downloaded from the Australia21 website here, and the covering media release may be accessed here.

Executive Summary

Australia21, Universities Australia, and the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable
Development combined to host a high-level forum of twenty-seven experts in Canberra on 12 July
2010. The meeting was held in the context of a forthcoming national election. This Australia21 report provides an overview of the forum discussion and outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting was to define how Australia could most effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the aftermath of the Copenhagen discussions and the deferral of the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The participants included climatologists, economists, social scientists and policy experts from a range of national institutions and businesses.

A brief review of the scientific consensus about climate change and Australia’s response to date reaffirmed that climate change is a public policy issue requiring urgent attention. Furthermore, far from being a world leader on this matter, Australia is now lagging behind many other developed and developing nations in producing mechanisms to mitigate and adapt to global warming. Yet the Australian electorate seemingly remains impatient for effective action.

The science clearly indicates that there is likely to be increased danger with increased warming and that in the face of grave risks and uncertainties associated with rising emissions Australia must move towards becoming a resilient society. There is the likelihood that feedback effects that are relatively unpredictable in their timing of onset could lead to ‘tipping points’ that would produce irreversible changes to our landscape and ecosystems, and place additional stresses on Australia’s regional and urban infrastructure and its food production systems.

It was concluded that plans for adaptation, mitigation and transformation must be developed in our national response to these changes, recognising that the climate of the future will hold the likelihood of ‘high impact-low probability’ events, of which the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a striking example.

Much of the discussion centred on the potential role of carbon pricing in constraining greenhouse emissions and the practicability of various pricing approaches, including different ways of moving from where we are now, to a situation where a carbon price would result in trading of emissions entitlements as well as real reductions in the nation’s emissions - which are still continuing to rise.
A known and predictable price will offer business a clear understanding of the future costs they face, and will also facilitate investment in innovation in non-polluting energy production. Pricing could be introduced without disturbing the budget bottom line and made appealing to the public and industry, if the property rights on emissions are distributed effectively.

There was firm agreement that a new national narrative on emissions reduction should be developed, and on the importance of depoliticising the debate so as to reflect the magnitude of the environmental, economic and social aspects of changes to our climate.

While regulation for energy efficiency and strategic roadmaps for alternative energy technologies are vital elements of climate policy development, the meeting concluded that Australia should develop a pricing and market mechanism to win the support of the vast majority of Australians. A pricing and marketing mechanism will reduce business uncertainty and increase incentives for investment, at the same time as it contributes to rapid and essential reduction in emissions. There are a number of ways this could happen, and it should commence now.

An independent institution to manage a carbon price could assist in informing a carbon market and in educating the community. Any such institutional structure should be at arm’s length from the political process in much the same way as the Reserve Bank manages monetary policy.

The group is concerned at the way this policy is currently being handled and urges all political parties to work together to produce an effective carbon pricing policy. All political parties should engage in the scale and management required to create Australia as a low carbon society – and to bring it into the centre ground of national public policy.

The forum has offered its support to all parties to assist them to build an attractive and common pricing mechanism into their policy platforms.

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