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We'll wait 'til Arctic waters boil

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Friday, 3 February 2006


The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate comprises the US, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea. As they met in Sydney earlier in January, I kept thinking of the planet Venus.

Over 95 per cent of Venus’ atmosphere is carbon-dioxide or CO2. That’s the principle greenhouse gas behind Earth’s climate change.

Venus probably had oceans and rivers like us and possibly life. But today, though its sunlight is a quarter as strong as Mercury’s, Venus is hotter. The mother of all greenhouse effects boiled away its oceans! Venus’ greenhouse effect adds nearly 400C to its ambient temperature.

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Want to smelt some lead? No problem on Venus - rocks glow and lead melts. All because of Venus’ greenhouse effect.

Fortunately, CO2 and the other greenhouse gases are still less than 0.5 per cent of our own atmosphere, even though we’ve managed to increase their concentration by a third since the industrial revolution. But my reading is the same as Bill Clinton’s. There’s increasingly little doubt that climate change is “real, accelerating and caused [perhaps among other things] by human activities”.

Our climate is full of both destablising, vicious circles or “positive feedback” where warming reinforces itself. Warming melts Arctic ice (so Earth reflects less of the sun’s rays) and it releases methane from the thawing Arctic tundra. In each case warming begets more warming.

There’s also negative feedback stabilising things like a thermostat - more CO2 helps plant growth which absorbs some of the CO2. I doubt we can model all these effects accurately. But the die is cast for the next few decades as it takes that long for our actions to have much effect. Thus as the ice keeps melting, look forward to lots of new data on our experiment.

Meanwhile, of the Asia-Pacific Partners, only Japan has emissions obligations from Kyoto. The US and Australia are the coalition of the unwilling - having negotiated favourable Kyoto commitments and then backed out. China, India and South Korea trenchantly refused commitments all along.

And there they all were in Sydney - five naked countries in search of a Moreton Bay fig-leaf.

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An Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) report was wheeled out to focus the spin. The media duly reported it as showing the partnership’s potential though its assumptions were completely arbitrary. Thus ABARE’s most optimistic modelling assumed that from a given date new power plants would capture and bury the CO2 they generated. But no credible explanation as to how the partnership would bring this about, nor any undertaking to do so.

Prime Minister John Howard said that addressing climate change at the expense of economic growth was “not only unrealistic but unacceptable". Sounds commonsensical doesn’t it? Reassuring. But many things that governments spend money on cost economic growth, at least in the short-term. Like fighting poverty, crime, terror, pollution and deterring invasion. Like helping the old and sick people, conserving national parks and hosting and winning medals at the Commonwealth Games.

The pall of officialese rose over the Sydney meeting like Venus’s sulfurous clouds. But firms won’t be given incentives to reduce carbon emissions, we’ll just ask nicely - yet again. (Imagine Brisbane with pollution control that was voluntary). How will the partnership’s “action plans” differ from our own long standing “Greenhouse Challenge” program of voluntary action, and the equivalents elsewhere? And what existing obstacles to international co-operation does the partnership overcome? Beats me.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on January 18, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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