A Stern Warning

G Magazine

Speaking with Nicholas Stern offered TV journalist George Negus a foreboding insight into the urgency Australia ought to take on climate change leadership.

Nicholas Stern

"I think the world will ask if Australia - with all its advantages - can't cut back strongly, then how can anybody expect the rest of us to cut back strongly." Nicholas Stern.

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Some things change – and unfortunately, some things don’t! Down Under, even the debate on bloody climate change, would you believe, hasn’t changed. Most of us thought Al Gore’s visits Down Under had woken us up to the ‘inconvenient truth’ of global warming – but apparently it didn’t.

After four years of self-defeating and unedifying squabbling, bless our little cotton socks, we are still somehow locked in embarrassingly adolescent point-scoring and counter-productive, partisan political nonsense on the joint global – indeed planetary – issues of climate change and global warming.

For months back in 2009, governments all over the world had been racing the clock to get their various acts together before the UN climate change Summit in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, in early December. Amazingly, in Australia, we’re still haggling over our carbon reduction targets. We were bloody slack, but it wasn’t just us lagging behind. Across the globe, the Summit’s goals were being downgraded as the December deadline drew closer.

Depressingly, after the ideologically inconclusive 2010 Federal Election campaign, the situation Down Under on climate change was probably as far from resolved as it was back then. A Labor Government was into inexplicably silly delaying tactics and a Leader of the opposition, the country’s alternative Prime Minister, had written off climate change as ‘absolute crap’. The country had no plans whatsoever for any carbon tax or trading.

Had the Land Down Under gone from the so-called ‘Lucky Country’ to the ‘Loopy Country’? Earlier in 2009, as the global debate had been hotting up, I’d talked with Lord Nicholas Stern from the UK, the architect of the 2006 UK Inter-Parliamentary Climate Committee’s review that had become pretty much the benchmark for any serious discussion on the still thorny issue of climate change and carbon reduction.

With just two very nervous weeks to go before the Copenhagen international gathering – and what it might or probably would not achieve – that interview was as pertinent as ever. The crazy bit is that Stern’s comments, which invariably draw heavy fire from the world’s and Australia’s considerable army of global-warming skeptics and noon-believers, are still eerily relevant.

On that of the almost puerile partisan nature of the Australian politics of climate change, I asked Lord Stern, the world’s best known climate change economist, whether he had any advice – gratuitous or otherwise – to give us, because, it would seem, the issue had degenerated into a seriously ‘misshapen’ political football Down Under.

“I think it’s very important for the people of Australia and those involved in this discussion,” he started, “to take account of the very big international implications of what Australia decides to do. It can’t simply wait for everybody else, because we’re all part of this together. Actually, Australia is a prominent part of the story.”

As Stern put it, Australia, Canada, and the US were right up there among ‘the big emitters’ with over twenty tonnes of CO2-equivalent per capita, compared with Europe with around ten to twelve tonnes, China around five, India below two and much of sub-Saharan Africa below one tonne per capita. Not a record for this country to be proud of, I would have thought?

“So,” Stern went on, “I think the world will ask if Australia – with all its advantages – can’t cut back strongly, then how can anybody expect the rest of us to cut back strongly. What Australia does is an extremely serious issue for the rest of the world. I think that there should be a sense of urgency in Australia. As you debate your own problems robustly and in your own way, it’s very important that that urgency comes through Australian politics, because what you do is a significant part of what the world will do.”

But could we wait until Copenhagen? Could we wait for the US and China, for instance? Stern thought there was the potential for momentum with the changing policies of the US administration. “The Americans have committed themselves to eighty percent reductions over 1990-2050. That’s from a level of emissions not dissimilar from that of Australia.”

The US was building its emissions trading scheme. The Chinese were looking ‘very intently’ at their energy strategy, building into their twelfth five-year plan, which starts at the beginning of 2011. “We’re seeing big changes in those countries,” Stern said. “China is talking about peaking by 2020 in its emissions. We haven’t heard that before. Australia is in a very special position. Indeed, Australia’s political position in relation to the two key powers, the US and China, is very important.’

I acquainted Lord Stern with one particular point of view within local political circles, that for Australia ‘to go it alone’ on climate change would be ‘economic suicide’. “There is no way,” he said, “that Australia could be interpreted as going it alone by moving forward now. That is absolutely fundamental.” Secondly, Australia – and other nations – had to recognise the measurable advances in acting early. “The low-carbon technologies are going to be the technological and innovation drivers of the next two or three decades,” he said. “High-carbon growth has no future. On the other hand, there’s going to be a position to produce.” He mentioned in particular, carbon capture and storage for coal. “There’s a good bet,” Stern said, “that if Australia really goes for it now it will become a world leader in what will be a huge market.” Somebody please tell that to the almost religious among Down Under’s sceptics!

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