Friday, September 30, 2011

Understanding the impacts of climate change policy

Wednesday night I went to the annual Walter Westman Lecture on Science, Humanity and the Environment at Sydney University's International House. One of the founding residents of International House in 1967, Professor Westman became an internationally prominent ecologist. He died in 1991 at the young age of 1945.

This year's lecture was delivered by ANU academic Dr Frank Jotzo under the title "Can Australia be a low-carbon country?" Dr Jotzo's view are well known. He is, among other things,  a lead author in the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I found it interesting, although the nature of the current debate means that things tend to get bogged down. As you might have expected, the opening shot from the audience was fired by a climate change skeptic. Again as you might have expected from this particular audience, most were quite sympathetic to Dr Jotzo's position.

My own interests have moved on. I am no longer interested in debating either climate change or the carbon tax. Rather, I am now trying to increase my understanding of longer term change processes especially associated with Government policy actions.

As I listened to Dr Jotzo, a number of questions arose in my mind that I might have raised had it been appropriate. It wasn't appropriate because the questions were clearly outrunning the time available.

I thought instead that I would simply list them here as a sort of an aide memoire to later thinking.  

Accounting Standards and Rules

Accounting standards and rules are central to the new approaches. If you are to have a carbon tax or price, if you are to allow offsets, you have to have measurement and compliance. This comes with costs and side-effects. One of my concerns is the risk that certain offsets may be ruled out because they are hard to measure or that the measurement is just to difficult.

I would like to know more here.  

Time Horizons & Environmental Conflicts

 20090521-09-03-45-outback2009-innamincka-geothermal-boring Dr Jotzo placed considerable weight on renewable sources of power. He quoted Treasury as suggesting that geothermal could meet a quarter of Australia's power needs.

This photo from Gordon Smith shows a geothermal project under construction just south of Innamincka in Queensland. At present, I think Australia has just one small functioning geothermal power station. So we are looking at quite long lead times before geothermal could achieve the Treasury estimate.

Dr Jotzo also referred to wind farms and coal seam gas as significant clean energy sources, as well as solar concentration. Both wind farms and coal seam gas are subject to major environmental opposition at the present time. Again, we have long lags.

I would like to have a much better understanding of the real time horizons involved in the various processes, taking environmental constraints into account.

Distributional Effects

I have spoken of this one before especially in the context of the costs of the carbon tax. However, it's much broader than that. It's not just a question of the varying costs of one or two cappuccinos, an analogy that dangerously trivialises the debate, but of potentially fundamental changes that I don't properly understand.    


As I said, this post is really an aide memoire to myself. I feel that climate change -  actual and responses - may have more profound effects than any of us realise. 

Assume that the climate skeptics are right. Governments cannot and will not wait because the risks are too great, so we already have significant changes working themselves through the system as a consequence.

Assume that the worst case climate change prognosticators are right. I haven't attempted to assess this yet. However, if this were to happen you are going to find not just the climate change effects, but the effects of extreme government actions.

The middle course, staged climate change with staged responses, is not necessarily the most probable just because it is the middle path. We just don't know.

I will leave this discussion here. I just want to know what it all means.  Every significant economic change creates a pattern of winners and losers. Being mercenary, people are already making money out of climate change. I suspect that this has only just begun.

Climate Change Posts

I have listed these posts just for future reference.

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