'Policy Muddle', But Ross Garnaut Holds High Hopes 10 Years After His Climate Change Review

FairfaxPeter Hannam

When Professor Ross Garnaut released his Climate Change Review at the end of September 2008, the landmark report understandably struggled to keep the attention of then prime minister Kevin Rudd.
On that morning, 10 years ago to the day on Sunday, Wall Street was just setting its largest daily points plunge as the global financial crisis gathered pace.

Up for grabs: Professor Ross Garnaut says that Australia faces great opportunities in a de-carbonised economy but only if it moves quickly. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Markets and economies would recover over the next decade - as the review predicted - but the same cannot be said for Australia's climate policies. “Policy has been more of a muddle than could reasonably have been anticipated," Professor Garnaut told Fairfax Media this week.
The review, including its call for an emissions trading scheme, had broad support in 2008, with the backing of all states and territories, the federal government and the opposition, the latter led by Malcolm Turnbull.
Fast forward to last month and it was Mr Turnbull's failure to secure Coalition backing for his National Energy Guarantee - intended to combine energy and climate policy - that arguably ended his prime ministership. Scott Morrison, his successor, now has few policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A couple of fishermen on the enlarging banks of Lake Hume, near Albury, where water levels are low due to drought. Photo: Nick Moir
"The well of good policy has been poisoned by the political discourse of the last nine years," said Professor Garnaut, now a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. "This is an urgent problem. We don’t have 50 years to complete this decarbonisation if we’re to avoid very serious problems for our society."
The seriousness will be revealed on October 8 when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes its report on the impact of 1.5 degrees of warming. That's the lower end of the Paris climate accord in which nations agreed to keep warming to well-below 2 degrees compared with pre-industrial times.
The planet has warmed about 1 degree over the past century, and the lagging effects from the carbon emissions already produced mean another half degree could soon be locked in.
Many ecosystems will be hammered even at 1.5 degrees, with scientists expected to say as much as 90 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef will be lost.

Surprisingly good news
Despite the policy failures in Australia, Professor Garnaut retains much of the optimism from his 2008 report.

Lake Pejar, one of the main water sources for Goulburn, is drying up. Photo: Nick Moir
China, easily the largest greenhouse gas emitter, now looks to have peaked in its use of thermal coal for power stations - much earlier than expected. Its dive into renewable energy has also helped spur much deeper price cuts than virtually anybody imagined.
The review, for instance, modelled a 3 per cent annual fall in the cost of solar panels. Instead, the reduction has been about 85 per cent over the decade, Professor Garnaut said.
The United States, the second biggest emitter, has also done better than forecast.
In 2007, then president George Bush committed the nation to peak emissions by 2025. "We know now they peaked in 2005," Professor Garnaut said.
Australia did have "effective policy" for a few years, when the carbon tax reduced emissions in sectors it covered, he said. Its revenues helped to offset the impact for low- and middle-income families.
“Despite the incoherence of policy [since the Abbott government scrapped the tax in 2014], we’ve continued to make some progress in the electricity sector, mainly because of the Renewable Energy Target," he said.
Evidence of that trend included a 4.3 per cent fall in power sector emissions in the year to March, data made public late on Friday by the government shows. Overall emissions, though, were up 1.3 per cent.
"If we move more quickly, Australia can utilise our exceptional resources for lower carbon energy to emerge as the developed world's energy superpower," Professor Garnaut said. "That will be very good for Australia's prosperity. I hope that we don’t lose that chance."


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