The three numbers missing from this election’s climate discussion

Byron Smith on the blind spots in our national discussion of climate change.

The national discussion of climate change in Australia has some curious blind spots. Despite having featured prominently in Australian federal politics since Kevin Rudd declared it “the great moral challenge of our generation” back in August 2007, the largest pieces of the policy puzzle have remained largely unexamined. Despite playing a major role in bringing down the leaders of both major parties in 2009-10 (first Turnbull and then Rudd) and despite decisively shaping the fortunes of both of their successors over the term of this minority government (as Abbott and Gillard incessantly battled over the price on carbon) and hence significantly contributing to Rudd redux – despite all this, nonetheless, at no point in the public debate have three crucial numbers been highlighted by either side.

Before I get to the numbers, let me lay out some basic groundwork. First, as an ethicist, I agree with Prime Minister Rudd that climate change is a grave moral issue, because those least responsible for the problem are those who face the most serious harms.

The basic science – the world is warming, human actions are primarily responsible and the projected impacts are overwhelmingly negative – is explicitly endorsed by virtually every relevant national or international scientific body in the world, as well as by every national government, from the most radical to the most conservative.

Our current path, in which we apparently intend to dig up and burn all the fossil fuels we can lay our hands on, is a recipe for catastrophe in the coming decades. Burning a significant fraction of the world’s carbon reserves will take us deep into uncharted waters, transforming the planet far further and faster than anything experienced in human history. Doing so will bring changes on a scale and at a pace that most experts expect to be beyond the ability of many natural and human systems to adapt. These are not the warnings of radical environmental groups, but of national academies of science and peak scientific bodies, backed up by a host of other institutions, such as the World Bank, the Pentagon, major insurance companies and religious leaders of all stripes.

Making matters worse, the planet’s climate system has a lot of inertia. The consequences of our emissions take decades to become fully manifest, so that at any given point, the warming already visible is only part of what is in the pipeline. On top of the inertia in the climate system is the inertia in our energy systems. Power plants generally have a lifespan of many decades. Thus, once a new coal or gas plant is built, the sunk cost of its construction makes it likely to remain in use for fifty years or more, unless the owners are willing to walk away from their investment before its profitable life is exhausted. The implication of these inertias is that, like turning an oil tanker or aircraft carrier, we need to change course well before we run into serious trouble if we want to avoid very serious trouble. To have a chance to adapt to the changes that are already unavoidable we have to avoid the changes that are unadaptable.

The good news is that it is still possible to avert the worst outcomes and there is no great secret what this involves. Principally, it means leaving the lion’s share of fossil fuels in the ground, unburned. Since the stock market value of fossil fuel companies relies on the assumption that they will extract and burn their entire reserves, this requirement is incompatible with their fundamental business plan. Put another way: their business plan is incompatible with a habitable planet. Yet since fossil fuel companies are the most profitable enterprises in the history of money, capable of exerting enormous political clout, perhaps you can start to see why the politics of climate generate so much heat. Politicians, caught between the economic leverage of fossil energy and the laws of chemistry and physics that drive climate change, have generally opted for a convenient compromise in which they promise action and deliver tokenistic gestures. And since fossil fuel reserves are distributed unequally around the globe, perhaps you can guess which countries will do the most foot dragging when it comes to reaching an agreement to leave most of the stuff in the ground. In fact, there is basically a direct correlation between the size of a nation’s fossil fuel reserves and its unwillingness to negotiate an ambitious climate deal.

We in Australia punch well above our weight in contributing to the problem: we have the highest per capita carbon footprint in the OECD; globally we are the 5th largest extractors of fossil carbon and we are the largest exporters of coal. Indeed, Australia controls a greater share of the international coal market than Saudi Arabia does of the international oil market. We are no bit players in this drama.

On top of this, we are amongst the wealthiest nations in the world and are blessed with above average renewable resources. If any nation ought to be leading the way in moving beyond fossil fuels, we’d be near the top of the list.

the consequences of our pollution fall hardest on three groups who have contributed little or nothing to the problem: the global poor, future generations and other species

Yet the consequences of our pollution fall hardest on three groups who have contributed little or nothing to the problem: the global poor, future generations and other species. This is the heart of the moral challenge of climate change. We have reaped the benefits of cheap energy, but others will pay the price of our bounty.

To avoid the worst harms and prepare for those already inevitable, many changes to our social and economic order are necessary. Climate change is too large and urgent an issue for gradual personal lifestyle changes alone to be sufficient; strong political action is also required. Discerning the best path forward is complex, and while the basic science is established beyond reasonable dispute, there remains much room for legitimate debate about the most effective and just policy responses.

Amidst heated public disagreements and a media landscape often more interested in conflict than accuracy, it is critical that we don’t lose the woods for the trees. And this is where the three missing numbers come in.

The first number is 0.5%. Currently, the two major parties disagree on means, but agree on the short-term goal: by 2020 both promise a 5% reduction of Australia’s CO2 emissions from a 2000 baseline, which means a mere 0.5% reduction from the 1990 baseline used by almost everyone else. When our per capita carbon footprint is already four to five times higher than the global average, this is paltry. To have a decent chance of avoiding some very dangerous outcomes, rich nations need to slash carbon emissions by something more like 40% (from 1990 levels) by 2020.

But the second number is even more important: two. While our domestic emissions are no trifling matter, the carbon in the coal we excavate for export already exceeds domestic emissions by a factor of two. And the coal industry, along with both major parties, plans for coal exports to more than double in the next twenty years. While a recent fall in the price of coal has delayed these plans, and China’s peak coal target suggests our primary buyer intends to wean itself off our black rocks, the Queensland government is pushing for major expansions in its coal port facilities with such gusto that UNESCO are issuing strong warnings about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef such plans present. Furthermore, the gas industry plans to turn Australia into the world’s largest exporter of liquefied gas; we are currently 5th. Since the heart of any sane response to our climate threat requires us to leave more than two-thirds of all fossil carbon in the ground, Australia’s oversized contribution to the excavation of that carbon is undoubtedly the largest unspoken reality in federal politics.

The third number is eleven billion. That is how many dollars Australia spends each year subsidising the fossil fuel industry. This number remains largely hidden since much of it takes the form of tax breaks, meaning that it doesn’t appear as a line item in the budget. Despite having made a commitment at the G20 to phase out such subsidies, the ALP currently plans only to tinker at the edges while the Coalition will silently continue this handout. The ALP-Greens subsidies to renewables, which the Coalition will scrap, are tiny in comparison.

These are the three crucial numbers missing from the climate debate in Australia. Neither major party is likely to mention them. These three bipartisan agreements are fundamentally incompatible with the demands of either justice or prudence, let alone the love for neighbour at the heart of Christian ethics, a tradition from which both Rudd and Abbott claim to draw inspiration. When considering how to vote on the 7th, and how to contribute to an ethical and rational climate policy in Australia thereafter, perhaps we can all work towards eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, significantly increasing the ambition of our targets and winding down the coal industry as quickly and justly as possible.

Because there’s a final number to keep in mind: one. That’s how many planets we have.

Byron Smith is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and is pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics from Edinburgh University.