Stern avoids rocking the foundations

December 2, 2006

Commissioned by the British government, the October 2006 Stern report on global warming was greeted sceptically by PM John Howard, and lauded by the ALP and green organisations. But does the Stern report go far enough, or is it an unholy compromise between the science of climate change and the economics of responding to global warming while trying not to rock the foundations of capital's global order?

Global averages temperatures have increased 0.6–0.7°C above pre-industrial levels, the world is producing almost double the amount of atmospheric carbon that the biosphere can absorb, and greenhouse gas (ghg) levels are rising at an increasing rate. Between 2000 and 2005, emissions grew four times faster than in the preceding 10 years.

Jim Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and the world's foremost climate scientist, says that "further global warming of 1°C (above the current rise of 0.6°C to 1.6°C) defines a critical threshold. Beyond that we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know." He concludes that "another decade of business-as-usual carbon emissions will probably make it too late to prevent the ecosystems of the north from triggering runaway climate change". This is the timebomb of global warming.

But total greenhouses gases are now rapidly approaching 450 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, which will almost certainly produce a rise of between 1.6°C to 2°C, or more. Global warming researcher George Monbiot says that "all climate scientists are now agreed ... that to avert catastrophic effects on both humans and ecosystems we should seek to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels". And while 2°C is widely seen as a "tipping point" (see article on page 13), such rises have already been exceeded in some of the most vulnerable places on earth including the Alaskan interior, Siberia and the Antarctic.

Stern says that constraining greenhouse gas levels to 450ppm "means around a 50:50 chance of keeping global increases below 2°C above pre-industrial" temperatures. But keeping levels to 450ppm is "already nearly out of reach", he admits, because "450ppm means peaking in the next five years or so and dropping fast". In other words, it would require immediate and radical action that Stern judges to be neither politically likely nor economically desirable.

Instead, Stern says the data "strongly suggests that we should aim somewhere between 450 and 550ppm", but his policy proposals demonstrate that he has the higher figure in mind as a practical goal: "It is clear that stabilising at 550ppm or below involves strong action ... but such stabilisation is feasible". His policy framework is therefore focused on constraining the increase to 550ppm, at which "there is around a 50:50 chance of keeping increases below 3°C".

The trillion dollar question is why is Stern content to advocate a target ghg level of 550ppm, when it may well be past the point that triggers runaway climate change?

Just over 6 billion people on Earth produce seven gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon a year or, averaged out, just over a tonne each, whereas the biosphere can sustainably absorb only four gigatonnes, or half a tonne per capita. Australia is currently producing seven tonnes per capita, 14 times the biosphere's capacity.

With economic and population increases and mid-range "business-as-usual" emission predictions by 2050 of around 14 gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon a year, the world will be producing five times the sustainable level of carbon emissions. By 2100, ghg will be 750ppm, and life on earth as we know it will be headed for the apocalypse.

Even by 2030, as the Earth's carbon sink (capacity to absorb carbon dioxide) falls to 2.7 gigatonnes due to positive feedback, and world population increases to an estimated 8.2 billion our sustainable level of emissions will need to "contract and converge" to just 0.32 tonne each. This which means that, in Australia, we must cut our present emissions by 95%. How does this square against vague promises of "60% cut by 2050", or the recent Walk Against Warming rally demands of "20% renewables by 2020"?

Carbon rationing

Keeping greenhouse gases below 450ppm means that global atmospheric carbon production must be cut quickly by 3 gigatonnes per year, or over 40% of current production. Stern says it means peaking in the next five years, and dropping emissions quickly from that point. He estimates this requires a cut in emissions of 30% by 2020 and 60% by 2030, but these figures are far too conservative.

Monbiot, in responding to Stern's estimates, says that "if we're to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030".

Is it possible? Only the most radical measures, enacted globally and quickly, would keep ghg levels to 450ppm. It means a challenging program of action and a cultural revolution in the West that would bring to an end the period of affluence that has led to the overproduction of carbon emissions, massive environmental destruction and increasingly commodified identities.

It would mean not the immediate imposition of high global carbon taxes, but a system of global carbon rationing. Given the fractious history of Kyoto, national "prosperity", chauvinism a la Howard and the state of global governance, this seems a fantasy. Yet it is necessary. Measures being adopted at the Kyoto rate are simply too little, too late. The emissions trading scheme, supported by the major parties and green groups as part of Kyoto, is a disaster, creating property rights to pollute that exceed what we can safely emit, encouraging companies to profit by selling the excess, and establishing legal pollution rights we will forever regret.

The Stern report warns of unprecedented economic crisis if strong action is not taken now, not in 15 or 20 years' time when new solutions may become viable. Painless voluntary reductions, the drip-by-drip implementation of more friendly technologies, or carbon trading, will not do enough, soon enough. The over-generous allocation of water quotas in Australian agriculture has produced an unprecedented water crisis. The overgenerous allocation of carbon quotas and rorting in the European emissions trading scheme has already undermined its efficacy, leaving aside concerns about emissions trading equity and inappropriate development in the Third World.

But Stern can only advocate what is acceptable to European capital. Commissioned by British PM Tony Blair to prepare his report, Stern stands with corporate climate advocates such as John Browne, chairman and CEO of BP, who also endorses a mitigation target of 550ppm, and it's where the western European governments more committed to climate action also seem headed: 550ppm is the emerging consensus of the carbon-aware wing of the global corporate elite.

Obstacles to market solutions

Stern describes the failure to account for the cost of carbon emissions as "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen". But he then proffers market solutions! He suggests principally a carbon tax that, if charged at his estimate of the long-term cost of carbon emissions, would be around $145 per tonne of carbon, or average around $700 per Australian (excluding certain emissions from the calculation).

But there are four obstacles:
•inelasticity of demand for some carbon-based products mean that people will pay more and their use will not drop sufficiently, as has happened over the last decade with real petrol price increases;
•such a tax is highly regressive and would disproportionately affect the poorer and those without the means to make their circumstances low-carbon;
•those on higher incomes would simply pay the tax and continue with their carbon-rich lifestyle — jet travel, air-conditioning and heating of large urban spaces, private vehicles and over-consumption; and
•there is no guarantee that it would produce the necessary structural transformation in the relatively short period of time required.

Stern cannot advocate what is necessary because it means the negation of the deregulated global capitalist economy. Limiting ghg to 450ppm would require massive state intervention and regulation, overturning the conventional working of the market, the elimination of high-carbon, luxury goods, including cheap air travel and tourism, and the wholesale restructuring of housing and transport. It would mean a virtual war economy on global warming in which we harness all our resources to try and prevent temperature rises that will mark us as the first species in history to have consciously created the conditions for our own extinction.

The only proposal that seems able to ensure the cuts in carbon emissions necessary is carbon rationing or "carbon credit", as advocated by Monbiot in his recent book Heat (visit <>).

Monbiot's idea has been taken up by former British Labour minister Michael Meacher, who has called for a war on global warming. He has called for a legislated 3% annual reduction target for businesses and individuals, based on the idea of tradeable personal carbon "credits". Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide, which they use to buy household gas and electricity, petrol and transport tickets. If they do not use all their credits, they can sell them to those whose lifestyle is more carbon dependent. This would cover 40% of the national carbon limit each year, the balance of 60% would be auctioned to business.

This rationing/carbon credit proposal is more equitable than carbon taxes or emissions trading, and by mandating an absolute and decreasing limit to carbon production, it is the only means guaranteed to rapidly reduce our current carbon production.

Carbon rationing/carbon credit will be unacceptable to all those political and business leaders who deny the reality of climate change predictions, or who soft-pedal solutions that can be proffered at little cost, complacent in the certainty that the free market ideology that has magnified this catastrophe is also its saviour. But there is no proposal other than carbon rationing that appears capable of reducing carbon emissions quickly enough, and to the extent necessary.

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