Australia’s responsibility for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions: a Pandora’s box



Politicians generally are loath to involve themselves in philosophical debates. They’re the type of debates which pose awkward questions such people are either ill-equipped or unwilling to answer. But at the international level, climate change conferences centre around what greenhouse gas emissions reduction burden is fair, who causes it, who suffers the impacts and who has the capacity to act. In short, what is an ethical contribution from a rich country like Australia?

Climate Action Tracker concluded Australia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of 26-28% below 2005-level emissions by 2030 is woeful. If every country had the same target, the world would be on a path of more than 3-4°C of warming. Direct Action combined with the Turnbull government’s additional funding leads to a 25% increase in total emissions from 2005 levels by 2030—only 2% less than under the Abbott government.

Clearly this is not fair, but what is?

An egalitarian position promotes an equal per capita apportioning of emissions rights based on the global ‘carbon budget’—that which the world can emit (currently 456 Gt CO2-e) by 2050 to maintain a CO2-e concentration of 450 ppm in the atmosphere and therefore a 50% chance of staying under a 2°C. This would be generous by the developing world, considering the world’s poorest inhabitants will be most impacted by climate change—soaring food prices, increased flooding, heatwaves, social conflict and so on—yet contributed very little to it. As shown in the graph, our current trajectory is incompatible with this scenario.


The historical, or ‘polluter pays’, principle means loftier targets for developed countries. The US’ cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 are 16% of the global total (1% more than China). However, if we broaden our gaze to 1850-2011, the US’ contribution becomes 27% compared with China’s 11% and the EU’s 25%—placing a much higher burden on the West’s responsibility to abate. But should states be held accountable for something that was not indisputable until the late 20th century?

Western economists often apply the utilitarian philosophy that underpins their economic theories to climate change mitigation and adaption responsibilities. Weighing up the discounted costs and benefits of abatement will lead us to a ‘rational’ decision on when, where and how much to abate. This is obviously blind to the inequity of the unequal climate change impacts, the problems of valuing nature in monetary terms and how to aggregate the welfare impacts of individuals, let alone nations. Hence their reversion to the use of GDP—a worthless indicator of social welfare—as precisely that: a measure of social health.

What about the argument that we should measure emissions based on GDP? In reality, since 2009 our carbon footprint is even higher once our embodied emissions—those coming from the domestic and overseas production and transportation of the goods we consume—is added to the tally.

Including the combustion of our coal exports in the calculation indicts us further. Assuming current fossil fuel export projects are implemented, by 2030 our exported carbon emissions could grow to 1.8 Gt CO2-e by 2030—more than three times our current GDP-based emissions. Hence why implementing paltry abatement policies while continuing to indulge the fossil fuel industry is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a pan in one hand while opening the port holes with the other.

A better climate policy framework is one that has the recognition of limits enshrined in its core. As ecological economists like Herman Daly have argued for decades, limiting the absolute scale of throughput therefore is the key.

The brilliant Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA) has developed the idea of a ‘Cap and Share’ system. Permits representing an equal share of greenhouse gas emissions entitlement would be given to each person, in total representing a safe level of emissions. Companies that extract fossil fuels would need to purchase enough permits from people that equal the emissions eventually released from their combustion. An alternative system would see the auctioning of permits representing quantities of greenhouse gas emissions to fossil fuel producers with the revenue redistributed to each state on a per capita basis. Both systems limit emissions at a safe level, while the poor benefit the most as their lower-carbon lifestyles would not consume their income from selling their permits or government rebate.

As a state that governs over a territory possessing one of the largest reserves of coal, LNG and natural gas, Australia can take the lead in a cap and share system with its capacity to ensure that companies comply with permits and regulate the phasing out of fossil fuel projects. Considering Australia’s historical and current emissions, as well as its wealth, this, I would argue, is its ethical responsibility. The question is, will so many of them—politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen—much like Churchill lead idealistically in a way they know instinctively is right, or will the self-ascribed ‘pragmatists’ of this world prevail in the do-or-die decade for our planet and, with it, our future?

James Alexander is completing a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, and is a former intern at the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development.

Image credit: klem@s (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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