The select committee established to review the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is now accepting submissions, and controversy over the precise interpretation of the terms of reference is already looming. As I noted last year, the terms were drafted by ACT and adopted wholesale by the government, with the exception of the removal of a review of the science of climate change. That was replaced by this clause:
â€¢ identify the central/benchmark projections which are being used as the motivation for international agreements to combat climate change; and consider the uncertainties and risks surrounding these projections
So when you hear people rail against the considering the uncertainties and risks of projections, they are actually railing against people understanding the science, and reading the IPCC reports.
No, David, they are railing against the use of that clause to introduce a review of the underlying science — which is what Hide is adamant he’s going to do, and committee chairman Peter Dunne is equally certain he’ll veto. However, the precise wording of that section is so vague that it is capable of multiple interpretations. Time to pull it to piecesâ€¦
Parsing this sentence requires some sort of definition of what is meant by “the central/benchmark projections”. I have no doubt that Hide and crank submitters will push for this to be interpreted as a review of the climate projections made in the IPPC’s fourth report (AR4), on the grounds that the global temperature increases they foreshadow are the primary motivation for international action to reduce emissions. For Rodney and the cranks, the risk and uncertainties will lie in the modelling and the projections of future damage. The models will be too uncertain to rely on, the expected damage too small to worry about, and the cost of action too great. The standard climate crank tropes will be given another airing.
There is, however, another reading of that key phrase that could suggest a worthwhile exercise for the committee — if the “central/benchmark projections” are taken to be of future emissions and targets for atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Taking the science — AR4 — as read, the parliamentarians could embark on a realistic assessment of the emissions targets that are central to international agreements on climate change. This would involve considering the EU’s +2ÂºC “limit” and what that means for greenhouse gas levels — usually taken to be 450 ppm CO2, even though that only yields a 50 percent chance of hitting the temperature target.
This is where, from a policy perspective, the risks and uncertainties really lie. One the one hand, we have Jim Hansen and others advocating 350 ppm as a “safe” level for CO2, one that would keep the major ice sheets intact and restrict sea level rise, while the reality of international negotiations and national self-interest will be to aim for a much less challenging (and cheaper) target — perhaps well over the EU’s 450 ppm. Judging the risks here is not a matter of questioning the science, more a balancing of the perspectives science provides against the realpolitik of international trade and diplomacy.
The committee would also do well to consider the asymmetry of the risks associated with dealing with climate change. If we suppose we are wrong, and climate change amounts to not very much, then we will have spent some money decarbonising our energy economy — something that the end of cheap fossil fuel suggests we need to do anyway. If we do nothing and are wrong, then we could suffer impacts sufficient to bring misery to millions — perhaps billions — and change the world in ways we can only imagine. The sensible strategy is to take the risk seriously, and buy insurance by reducing emissions now.
Submissions to the ETS committee close on Feb 13 (guidelines here). I will be making a detailed submission dealing with all the points in the terms of reference, and will publish them here. I would strongly urge Hot Topic’s readers to do the same. You can be sure that the cranks are gearing up to submit, and that the big emitters will be rehearsing their arguments against onerous action. Meanwhile, the world will be moving on, leaving NZ behind. Do not miss this opportunity to make your views known.