Australia aims for destruction of Great Barrier Reef

The Australian Government has set a 2020 target of reducing direct national greenhouse gas emissions by between 5 to 15% and thereby aiming at a global scenario that would stabilise global atmospheric greenhouse gases at around 510 to 550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents (ppm CO2-e) by the end of the century.

Heogh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated what these targets mean for the Great Barrier Reef and much of the marine ecosystem in the following series of pictures. Picture A on the left represents current conditions for corals across much of the GBR. Picture C on the right represents the conditions under the atmosphere being aimed for by the Australian Government.


The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper, released on 15 December 2008, does not acknowledge the expected impacts on the Great Barrier Reef if its global stabilisation targets are achieved but draws heavily on the economic analysis of Professor Ross Garnaut.

Garnaut (2008a: 38) was brutally frank in his supplementary draft report: “The [strategy of stabilising at 550 ppm CO2-e] would be expected to lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs.”

His final report does not shy away from this conclusion. Garnaut (2008b: 127) concluded that stabilisation at 550 ppm CO2-e will result in:

“Disappearance of reef as we know it, with high impact to reef-based tourism. Three-dimensional structure of the corals largely gone and system dominated by fleshy seaweed and soft corals.”

“A carbon dioxide concentration of 500 ppm or beyond, and likely associated temperature change, would be catastrophic for the majority of coral reefs across the planet. Under these conditions the three-dimensional structure of the Great Barrier Reef would be expected to deteriorate and would no longer be dominated by corals or many of the organisms that we recognise today.”

The White Paper all but dismisses “stabilising concentrations of greenhouse gases at around 450 parts per million or lower” because “achieving global commitment to emissions reductions of this order appears unlikely in the next commitment period [after the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012].”

Note, there are significant differences in targets based on stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide at 500 ppm (which picture C above depicts) and stabilising total radiative forcing of greenhouse gases and aerosols at 500 ppm CO2-e (see Avoiding confusion on stabilization targets for climate change and ocean acidification).

However, the White Paper appears to assume total radiative forcing will continue to roughly equal atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Therefore, by aiming to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases at around 510 to 550 ppm CO2-e, the White Paper appears to be aiming to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide (currently around 385 ppm) at these levels.

This should sound alarm bells for anyone following the scientific literature on ocean acidification, which has found serious impacts occur to coral reefs and much of the marine ecosystem above 450-500 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007; Cao and Caldeira 2008).

The public debate in Australia has largely ignored these impacts and it remains to be seen whether there will be any real challenge to the current approach being taken by the Australian Government.

The government has been less than frank on the implications of the targets it has chosen. There is no acknowledgment of the expected impacts to the Great Barrier Reef of stabilising at 510 – 550 ppm carbon dioxide or CO2-e and the choice of stabilising in this range is obscurely buried in the body of this 800 page report.

The White Paper refers repeatedly to 2020 targets of 5-15% reductions. It also refers repeatedly to stabilising at or below 450 ppm, with Garnaut’s pessimistic conclusion that “achieving global commitment to emissions reductions of this order appears unlikely”. But a reader must connect the 5-15% reductions to one of six scenarios set out on page 4-11 of the White Paper to uncover the overall stabilisation goals.

The White Paper relies heavily on Garnaut’s findings but a reader must also connect the obscurely buried stabilisation range of 510-550 ppm in the White Paper to Garnaut’s findings in his 600 page final report.

The government appears to be silently ignoring the expected impacts to the Great Barrier Reef and seeking to avoid confrontation on these implications in selling its climate change policies to the public. Tony Jones repeatedly asked Climate Minister Penny Wong of the implications for the Great Barrier Reef of stabilising at 550 ppm in an interview on ABC Lateline on (30 November 2008). She obviously knew the answer but danced around the questions to avoid stating that the government’s targets would mean the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Perhaps it is too late to save the Great Barrier Reef but silently ignoring the expected impacts when setting climate change targets is disingenuous and does not advance the public debate. We need to fully acknowledge what the science is telling us. Choosing not to listen to weather forecasts does not stop it raining.

We should judge our climate change policies by this simple test: will we leave the GBR for our children? At present the answer we are giving to this question is “no”. We are all responsible for changing the answer to “yes”.

We should demand targets based on what we as a society want to achieve. We should not accept targets that will produce unacceptable outcomes.


Avoiding confusion for stabilization targets for climate change and ocean acidification

Long Cao and Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford have a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters on atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) stabilization and ocean acidification, a critical topic for current marine science and public policy. Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the essential chemistry at the heart of this problem as follows:

Essentially, as CO2 dissolves into the oceans it forms an acid leading to decreased coral calcification and growth through the inhibition of aragonite formation (the principal crystalline form of calcium carbonate deposited in coral skeletons). The increased acidity caused by increasing atmospheric CO2 is known as ocean acidification and it is a separate, though inter-related, phenomenon to increased temperatures caused by CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas.

Cao and Caldeira (2008) found “that even at a CO2 stabilization level as low as 450 ppm, parts of the Southern Ocean become undersaturated with respect to aragonite [and] therefore, preservation of existing marine ecosystems could require a CO2 stabilization level that is lower than what might be chosen based on climate considerations alone.”

These results are similar to Hoegh-Gulberg et al (2007), who concluded “… contemplating policies that result in [CO2]atm above 500 ppm appears extremely risky for coral reefs and the tens of millions of people who depend on them directly, even under the most optimistic circumstances.”

Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the expected the conditions of coral reefs under different levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature increases as follows:

These findings are very significant for governments around the world and other policy-makers because much of the current policy debate on climate change focuses on stabilizing greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, between 450-550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, thereby allowing a rise in mean global temperatures of around 2-3°C (e.g. Stern 2007; Garnaut 2008; Australian Treasury 2008).

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The missing link in the “solutions” to climate change

The recent Garnaut report states that “the solutions to the climate change challenge must be found in removing the links between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.” In order to successfully mitigate climate change impacts on both the environment and the economy, we need to go a step further and replace those links with avenues for sustainable economic activity. This can effectively begin with innovative designs for improving efficiency in energy production and usage.

Rather than compensating mining companies that are vulnerable to the new emissions trading scheme, the pledged compensation should be used to train employees of these companies with skills that will help them develop innovative designs for efficient energy usage to the commercialisation level. These high emission companies should begin investing in new technologies which could eventually be traded instead of coal to countries like China, in order to spread the improvements in carbon emissions to a global scale. Of course, this is the ten billion ton gorilla in the room that no one quite wants to recognise (at least not publicly!)

Credits to trade-exposed companies and low income households should only be considered to the extent that benefits are not initially received for their investment. Once benefits are realised, this monetary gain must be re-invested into future innovative solutions, thereby replenishing the funding for green solutions. Essentially, we need to amp up the green investment cycle.  For example, in the above situation a mining company burdens the cost of training some employees and using their work hours for sustainable development avenues.

Once the company receives return on their investment, re-investment into development of sustainable technologies should occur to the extent of the original “loan” or government credit. Similarly, households given credits, for example, to install solar panels should be encouraged to re-invest the savings on their electricity bills into new innovative technologies. The establishment of this positive feedback loop should be a condition of receiving the credits in order to prevent the misuse of the credits or the undermining of carbon trading.

The missing links in the solutions to climate change are the real ideas that will drive the economy towards sustainable development. Treading softly on this issue is not an option – time is of essence.  Another weak link in this much needed cycle is the fact that economic gain is our society’s key motivation and the environment is severely undervalued. The Garnaut Review states that environmental and social costs “are not amenable to conventional measurement”.

In other words, any cost-benefit analysis will not be accurate. Society’s real motivation needs to come from desire to maintain and conserve the environment for future generations. There is no adequate or accurate way to quantify this desire. And there is no way to ensure that that this desire is a top priority of world citizens. It seems that the best way to achieve this goal is to steer people’s actions economically. However, it is unlikely that the outcome will exhibit the same strength when motivated by monetary value.

Scientists urge Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to crack down on climate change issues

The Age is reporting on an open letter to the Australian Prime Minister Keven Rudd, urging the PM to make strong cuts in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The letter, written by myself and 15 other Austalian scientists who contributed to the IPCC report, was released on the eve of the final report by the Garnaut review on climate change. In essence, we disagree with the recent advice by Professor Garnaut to make a slower start in cutting emissions (Targets and Trajectories – a 10% reduction by 2020), and strongly advocate the PM to reduce emissions by at least 25% bellow 1990 levels by 2020:

“As a group of Australia’s leading climate change scientists, we urge you to adopt this target as a minimum requirement for Australia’s contribution to an effective global climate agreement,” the letter states.

“Failure of the world to act now will leave Australians with a legacy of economic, environmental, social and health costs that will dwarf the scale of national investment required to address this fundamental problem”.

The scientists who signed the letter are Australia’s world-recognised experts on climate change, including Dr John Church, a leading authority on sea-level rise who recently stepped down as chairman of the joint scientific committee of the World Climate Research Program. Dr Church is also a senior CSIRO researcher, but he and other CSIRO scientists signed the letter as individuals.

Also among the signatories are Dr Roger Jones, from CSIRO, who is currently advising the federal Treasury and Professor Garnaut’s climate change review; Professors Nathan Bindoff and David Karoly, who worked on the most recent IPCC reports; Professor Tony McMichael from the Australian National University, who advised the IPCC on the human health impacts of climate change; Professor Matthew England, joint director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales; and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, an expert on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.

On the back of the report is a recent poll by the Lowy institute, which is quite an intriguing read. Whilst the overall message is a positive one in that Australians want action on climate change, the feeling is that it cannot come at a cost to jobs or at a financial cost. Out of the 1001 people, 19% surveyed said they would be willing to pay >$21 per month ontop of their electricity bill to help solve climate change, and 20% would pay between $11-20. In contrast, 32% would be willing to pay between $1-10 per month, whilst 32% of people surveyed were not prepared to pay anything at all.

Interestingly, 64% of responants believed that the Kyoto Protocol hasn’t solved the issue of climate change but was “a step in the right direction”, yet 26% believed it was “purely symbolic”. On the bright side, if this poll is a genuine reflection of Australian attitudes, 73% would prefer Barack Obama to become the next president of the United States, whilst John McCain recieved only a 16% response.

“Garnaut report sparks call to arms for at-risk Barrier Reef”

ABC News, 5th July

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says it accepts the findings of the Garnaut report on the impact of climate change on the reef.

The report found if carbon emissions are not reduced, the reef could die within decades.

The Authority’s Russel Reichelt says governments and industry must take strong action to protect the reef.

He says the Garnaut report relied on 15 years of scientific research into global warming.

"It’s also relying on the forecast from the inter-governmental panel on climate change, which have painted a range of futures, but even the rosiest future causes me great concern that the reef will be severely damaged within 20 to 40 years," he said.

The Queensland Tourism Industry Council also accepts the report’s findings.

Chief executive Daniel Gschwind says a report delivered four years ago showed carbon emissions could kill the reef.

He says the reef is worth about $5 billion annually and must be protected.

"We’re very conscious of the role that tourism plays and the effect it could have on tourism if we don’t do the right thing, so it is a very important issue for our industry, it’s an industry that is all based on conservation and nature," he said.

"We will certainly study the report with some interest."