In answer to the question; what are the actions we should take to address climate change, we must first decide how we much action we need to take and then how we measure any actions proposed.
Is there a need to act and when is that?
In the last quarter of the 20th century atmospheric CO2 grew by an average of 1.5parts per million of volume [ppmv]. It took some180 years to reach the highs of the past 650,000 years as measured in Antarctic Ice Cores [from 280 to 315ppmv] and will increase by double the amount of that change next year, taking about 50 years.
In these 180 years global average temperature rose about 0.2dC,
In the 50 year period about 0.5dC. The greenhouse gases currently present in the atmosphere add about another 0.6dC, to total some 1.3dC increase around 2040. This is unavoidable regardless of the words spoken or actions taken.
In the past 5 years the average rate of increase has been 2.2ppmv, reducing the time we have to stabilize atmospheric carbon at or below 450ppmv to about 30 years on current trends.
And this is without taking account of the other greenhouse gases such as methane.
What is important about 450ppmv CO2eq?.
Once that level is reached the temperature will rise by 2dC and rainfall patterns will alter further in the 3 or 4 decades for the warming to occur. Together, these 2 factors determine natural vegetation patterns and agricultural activities and thus the distribution of all species.
This 2dC will be unavoidable if we pass 450ppmv, unless we can rapidly decarbonize the atmosphere; perhaps possible, certainly costly and probably unnecessary if we take appropriate action now.
On the rise to that temperature, vegetation systems will be stressed, reducing their capacity to biosequester, even were we cease disturbing them through human activity.
[That disturbance is one reason why the rate of growth of atmospheric CO2 has averaged an increase of 50% recently].
As we approach the 2dC, relatively minor changes in vegetation patterns will morph into large scale change as whole systems go through adjustment to the new temperature and rainfall patterns.
Agents of change Australians are familiar with are fire and drought.
Broadly, as the plants adjusted to the site conditions are killed by fire or drought, their replacements from the extant vegetation are less able to survive these stresses because of their immaturity and inherent characteristics and so selection for species and ecosystems more suited to the new climate regimen occurs.
The recovery of natural vegetation in burnt landscapes should be monitored to understand in detail what is happening.
Another impact of reduced terrestrial biosequestration is that the carbon load is transferred to the ocean, where most carbon taken from the atmosphere is sunk [not released].
Here, simply warming the ocean reduces plant life, and thus capacity, besides the impact of a greater acidity caused by additional carbon in the atmosphere reducing the ability of planktons to build their calcium based bodies.
So, we are seeing the decline of natural systems capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere through biological processes pointing towards a collapse of ability to so act, a point where respiration exceeds photosynthesis.
As for human activity
Mature and emerging economies will not want to stop production of cheap fossil fuel powered energy without a replacement and the volume of global use of these sources, coal, oil and gas, is predicted to double by 2050.
Besides the impacts on the climate, the supply of fresh water and land for maintenance of natural systems, closely related to the supply of drinking water supply and to products from timber to protein, will have to be addressed in all economies, and especially those dependent on forests.
Another impact is the supply of ocean sourced fish protein that is a major part of many peoples diet and also in many diets.
These will not just reflect as local resource issues, they will also be regional and global security issues with fundamental views about deities holding greater sway among the poorly educated and true believers, rationality and international cohesion coming under increasing stress.
Only the mentally ill select to self harm and fail to recognize reality, even if it was formed by black and white television.
Therefore, we can expect action to be announced and even taken.
No responsible government and only a few individuals will continue in a state of denial, their dissociative coping mechanism.
3 measures to assess proposed policies come to mind.
Action must be comprehensive; it must address all major sources of emissions, not allow one to replace another, thus continuing the rate of CO2 growth, as simply geosequestering from coal would do if petroleum use doubled while emissions from coal were reduced. [ABARE 06.01]
To be effective; actions must actually reduce emissions [mitigate] sufficiently.
This is not to negate adaptation strategies, but their increasing importance only follows our failure to mitigate. An example of a global warming cost is $10B spent in the Murray Darling Basin on adaptation.
Most importantly, actions must be timely, in that the measures taken avoid crossing a threshold turning point where global heating becomes unstoppable, given the known technologies.
That appears to be in the area of 2dC [450ppmv], a point where the natural systems for terrestrial biosequestration become massively disturbed. That point is brought closer the longer we delay comprehensive and effective action.
The European economies have selected targets for reduction strategies greater than Kyoto. Some appear to be failing their first round Kyoto targets and their own greater targets as they attempt to change. However, any slowing of the growth rate of greenhouse gases puts off the danger.
Certainly, no elected national leadership will survive sacrificing its economy on taking measures to avoid dangerous climate change whilst other economies take advantage to grow at the expense of everyone’s climate.
However, for Australia that has beens shown by CSIRO to be a false dichotomy. You can have growth in wealth and take action to avoid climate change.
But there is a small and affordable cost. The alternative, unaffordable costs and potential failure.
An international agreement that all adhere to is also needed, to build equity into the changes and assist in transferring technology. Only acting locally will see failure.
The experience of international agreements indicates this will be a slow and rough path.
In the technological area we have a huge range on offer, none of which alone will address the problem.
Nor would be the implementation of an uncapped carbon emission trading scheme that sets a price too low to ensure effective and timely action. This is the danger inherent in the Business Council of Australia proposal that Howard is indicating he will accept.
Adopting a scheme that raises costs without increasing the rate of mitigation will be more than a complete failure of policy, it will simply a regressive redistributive measure through price, wasting precious time.
The choices for a nation’s research and implementation investment are not simple.
Dependence on one or 2 solutions has impacts on the economy selecting them if the investment is surpassed by a lower cost technology elsewhere.
One emerging technology not getting wide publicity is algae based bioreactors, using the carbon from CO2 coming out the stack of coal fired power plants to produce biofuels.
One of the processes is being taken to large scale trial at the Redhawk coal fired power plant in Arizona.
It is using the carbon from the CO2 to grow simple plants and then harvest some of them as the biomass grows and stores carbon in its cells. The harvest is processed to extract the fuels, as is currently done with corn and soyabean to produce biodiesel and ethanol.
Turning the carbon emissions from coal into a fuel addresses one problem, leaving us with other impossibilities of consumerism to address, such as a car for every adult of the 6.5B or more or in broader terms addressing equitable distribution for a quality life for all species.
However, to get to address those impossibilities, we need to take the actions that keep the changes to the climate within manageable bounds, with a goal to return a range that produces a tolerable climate for natural systems and humans.
Rudd has quoted the Republican Schwarzenegger in arguing that the issue of avoiding further dangerous climate change has gone beyond partisan politics.
However, in Australia the issue remains constrained by national and sectoral vested interests.
Breaking out of this mould requires unity among those opposed to the Howard government’s philosophies; so we may move from the newer form climate change denial, denying the importance of immediate action; to a national plan and an international agreement [Kyoto2] to stabilize atmospheric carbon at levels from which the natural system upon which we all depend may recover.
Otherwise, to argue about the economy and progress is a complete waste of time because there won’t be either.
Another view: Half-truths flourish in the political hothouse