Why is the business world suddenly clamouring for a global carbon tax?

Peter Burdon

Among the various interests at the Paris climate talks, it is arguably the voice of business that has emerged most clearly. Many business leaders are now saying that if the world is intent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there must be a worldwide price on carbon and a framework for linking the 55 schemes that exist in areas such as China, the European Union, and California.

Momentum has been building since May, when six of Europe’s largest oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP, issued a letter calling for global carbon pricing system. That month, leaders from 59 international companies also signed a statement calling for carbon pricing to feature in the Paris agreement.

Advocacy has continued during the Paris negotiations. For example, Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of French oil and gas giant Total, argued that the shift from coal to gas “will not happen without a carbon price”. He suggested that a price of US$20-$50 in Europe was required (well above the current price).

Oleg Deripaska, president of the world’s largest aluminium producer Rusal, put the issue in stronger terms, describing the idea of voluntary national emissions commitments (upon which the Paris agreement largely hinges) as “balderdash”.

Asked what success would look like from the Paris negotiations, Deripaska replied:

A success [for most people] would be lunch at a nice French banquette with foie gras and oysters. But no, seriously, it is carbon tax or die.

Carbon tax on the menu?

It is not clear whether a carbon price will figure in the Paris agreement. But it is important to consider what is motivating some of the world’s highest-emitting companies to advocate for a carbon price. And what other, perhaps more intrusive plans for tackling climate change would be taken off the table?

Businesses have a stronger presence at COP21 than at any previous climate negotiation. They know which way the wind is blowing and realise that governments might require painful and complex interventions to reduce emissions. Moves are afoot to decarbonise the world economy some time after 2050 (see Article 3 of the latest draft text, and there has been strong advocacy for a moratorium on new coal mines.

Helge Lund, chief executive of British oil multinational BG Group, argues that a carbon price reduces government intervention and attempts at “pick[ing] winners in terms of energy technologies.” Instead, he argues: “the market will dictate the most efficient solution”.

Forecasts from the International Energy Agency suggest that fossil fuels (including coal) will provide the bulk of energy demand for developing countries going into the future. Companies intend to meet that demand. Thus, Shell can simultaneously advocate putting a price on carbon and make plans to drill in the Arctic where production will not begin until 2030.

While that might sound perverse, there is actually nothing inconsistent about those two positions.

One way for energy companies to maintain economic growth in a carbon-priced economy is to shift investments gradually away from coal and oil, and towards gas. That is why Shell has paid US$70 billion for the BG Group.

Of course gas might come under similar pressure in time, but as the Financial Times has reported:

…oil companies’ skills and assets mean that finding and extracting gas is a short and natural step. Moving into renewable energy is a much bigger leap.

This can be seen in the many examples where energy companies have struggled to develop other forms of energy, such as BP’s ill-starred attempt to brand itself as “beyond petroleum” and invest US$8 billion over ten years in renewable energy. The company has since backtracked on that goal, has left the solar market, and has no plans to expand its onshore wind investments.

Beyond markets

Of the 185 countries that have submitted climate targets ahead of the Paris talks, more than 80 have referenced market mechanisms.

Clearly, a price on carbon is going to play a role in attempts to tackle climate change. This is a good thing but it is not sufficient and must not become a distraction from other serious interventions.

Recent research confirms that we do not have time to wait for energy companies to transition at their own pace from fossil fuels to renewable energy. For example, last week Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research published a paper in Nature Geoscience which argued:

The carbon budgets associated with a 2℃ threshold demand profound changes to the consumption and production of energy … the IPCC’s 1,000 gigatonne budget requires an end to all carbon emissions from energy systems by 2050.

A carbon budget consistent with 2℃ (let alone 1.5℃) requires a dramatic reversal in energy consumption and emissions growth. Governments should treat overtures from business with caution, even if businesses are making the right moves. They need to ensure that these moves are made at a speed that suits the climate, rather than just business.

The Conversation

Peter Burdon, Senior lecturer, Adelaide Law School

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The oceans are coming for us: how should we plan for dire sea level forecasts?

Filippo Dall’Osso, University of Sydney; Dale Dominey-Howes, University of Sydney, and Tom FitzGerald, University of Sydney

You may have seen recent maps showing how sea level rise may effect coastlines worldwide, including Australian cities. These maps have been produced by US-based website Climate Central.

For instance the video below shows what they forecast sea level rise would be like in Melbourne with 4℃ and 2℃ of warming. This is not necessarily sea level rise that will occur over the coming century, but the eventual sea level locked in under particular temperature scenarios. It could take under 200 years or up to 2,000 for sea levels to reach these levels.

The picture isn’t pretty.

Maps such as these have triggered heated debate and discussion in different places in Australia (for instance Eurobodalla and Ballina andByron Bay in New South Wales ) as individuals and organisations wrestled with the implications for property values, policy, long term planning and future risk management of our coastlines.

So is it time to sell up?

Coasts are always changing

This mapping helps us realise that coastlines are not static like property boundaries. They are in fact incredibly dynamic and continue to adjust to changes in sea level. The ambulatory nature of coastlines is a point worth remembering.

It is incredibly important to emphasise that the geomorphological, geological, ecological (i.e. dunes or reefs), or built characteristics of your local coastal environment have a huge influence on how coastlines respond to changing sea levels.

In some places beaches are advancing due to an excess in sand supply, while in other places a lack of sand means a coastline can recede (such as Old Bar on the mid-north coast of New South Wales). Furthermore, coral islands in the Pacific are now known to be dynamic in how they change shape and form in response to rising seas.

The rate of sea level rise is important in this regard. The point is, these maps cannot be taken at face value because they mask locally relevant environmental processes that will impact how sea level rise is experienced at any one place.

How are communities adapting to sea level rise?

In countries like Australia local and regional governments are doing more robust local studies forecasting sea level rise and coastal change.

Good examples are the projects Mapping and responding to coastal inundation – undertaken jointly by the Sydney Coastal Councils Group and the CSIRO; and Coastal Vulnerability to Multiple Inundation Sources (COVERMAR) – a partnership between the Sydney Coastal Councils Group and the University of Sydney. Such efforts are much more useful for responding to the threats of sea level rise.

Recently proposed changes to policy and legislation in NSW make explicit the need to consider climate change and the risks it poses to our way of life. The proposed Coastal Management Act goes further and makes explicit mention of the risks posed by extreme storm events (compounded by rising sea levels) to our built environment and life.

The need for local information

Broad-scale maps such as these provide a visceral link between a warmer and wetter world, which can provide the general public with a broad educational tool to help them visualise and grasp what sea level change might look like in their local area.

They are useful for initiating local conversations in communities about the possible locations of critical infrastructure (e.g. nuclear power stations at coastlines) that will have life spans running to hundreds of years or even longer.

But to actually plan for sea level rise we need good, local information. In NSW decisions about coastal management are made mostly by local government. These decisions come about after a detailed study of the local coastal processes and environment, and the values placed on the coastal environment (e.g. property, recreation, aesthetics etc.).

Using a risk-based approach to coastal management and planning will help ensure that new high value development (e.g. infrastructure, power stations etc.) is not placed in areas exposed to rising seas.

The problem is existing development in areas now known to be hazardous with the most comprehensive analyses being presented in the National Coastal Risk Assessment published by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment. A risk-based planning process should seek to avoid repeating those mistakes, but also allow for continued use of those areas until such time as it is unsafe.

Evaluating and making decisions about those risks is incredibly difficult and fraught with complexity (coastal evolution is the result of multiple factors), ambiguity (whose values matter?) and uncertainty (what really will happen in 100 years?). Having said that, coastal planners all over Australia (and around the world for that matter) are grappling with these issues. But, we still have a very long way to go.

The Conversation

Filippo Dall’Osso, Researcher at the Natural Hazards Research Group, University of Sydney; Dale Dominey-Howes, Associate Professor in Natural Disaster Geography, University of Sydney, and Tom FitzGerald, PhD candidate in coastal hazard risk management, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate and the rise and fall of civilizations: a lesson from the past

Andrew Glikson, Australian National University

2015 will likely be the hottest year on record, beating the previous record set only in 2014. It is also likely to be the first year the global average temperature reaches 1℃ above pre-industrial temperatures (measured from 1880-1899). Global warming is raising temperatures, and this year’s El Niño has pushed temperatures higher still.

Although 2015 is unusually hot, 1℃ symbolically marks the halfway point to 2℃, widely considered to be the threshold of “dangerous” climate change. In fact an additional 0.5-1℃ is actually masked by sulphur aerosols which we have added to the atmosphere alongside greenhouse gases.

A temperature level of 1℃ (above pre-industrial levels) is similar to or warmer than the peak temperatures of the early Holocene epoch approximately 8,000-7,200 years ago. Studies of the early Holocene provide clues to what was such a world like.

The climate roller-coaster

The last ice age (or Last Glacial Maximum) peaked around 26,000 years ago. The earth warmed over the coming millennia, driven by an increase in radiation from the sun due to changes in the earth’s orbit (the Milankovic cycles) amplified by CO₂ released from warming water, which further warmed the atmosphere.

But even as the earth warmed it was interrupted by cooler periods known as “stadials”. These were caused by melt water from melting ice sheets which cool large regions of the ocean.

Marked climate variability and extreme weather events during the early Holocene retarded development of sustainable agriculture.

Sparse human settlements existed about 12,000 – 11,000 years ago. The flourishing of human civilisation from about 10,000 years ago, and in particular from 7,000 years ago, critically depended on stabilisation of climate conditions which allowed planting and harvesting of seed and growing of crops, facilitating growth of villages and towns and thereby of civilisation.

Peak warming periods early in the Holocene were associated with prevalence of heavy monsoons and heavy floods, likely reflected by Noah’s ark story.

We can’t measure historical temperatures directly, so scientists use oxygen measurements instead. Human civilisation arose in a period of mostly settled climate.
Bruce Railback’s Geoscience Resources

Early civilisations

The climate stabilised about 7,000 – 5,000 years ago. This allowed the flourishing of civilisations along the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus and the Yellow River.

The ancient river valley civilisations cultivation depended on flow and ebb cycles, in turn dependent on seasonal rains and melting snows in the mountain sources of the rivers. These formed the conditions for production of excess food.

When such conditions declined due to droughts or floods, civilisations collapsed. Examples include the decline of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indus civilisations about 4,200 years ago due to severe drought.

Throughout the Holocene relatively warm periods, such as the Medieval Warm Period (900-1200 AD), and cold periods, such as the Little Ice Age (around 1600 – 1700 AD), led to agricultural crises with consequent hunger, epidemics and wars. A classic account of the consequences of these events is presented in the book Collapse by Jared Diamond.

It’s not just Middle Eastern civilisations. Across the globe and throughout history the rise and fall of civilisations such as the Maya in Central America, the Tiwanaku in Peru, and the Khmer Empire in Cambodia, have been determined by the ebb and flow of droughts and floods.

Changing the game

Greenhouse gas levels were stable or declined between 8,000-6,000 years ago, but then began to rise slowly after 6,000 years ago. According to William Ruddiman at the University of Virginia, this rise in greenhouse gases was due to deforestation, burning and land clearing by people. This stopped the decline in greenhouse gases and ultimately prevented the next ice age. If so, human-caused climate change began much earlier than we usually think.

Rise and fall in solar radiation continued to shift the climate. The Medieval Warm Period was driven by an increase in solar radiation, while the Little Ice Age was caused at least in part by a decrease.

Now we’ve changed the game again by releasing over 600 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, raising CO₂ concentrations from around 270 parts per million to about 400 parts per million.

One of the consequences of this rise is an extraordinary decline in the North Atlantic Ocean Circulation as cold water from melting of Greenland ice enters the sea. This could potentially lead to a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation and a short, regional human-caused cold period, or “stadial”, mostly affecting Europe and North America, similar to those that occurred in the early Holocene.

CO2 concentrations in November 2015. The blue circle shows an area of reduced CO2 corresponding to cooler sea temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean.
NASA, Author provided

While this may sound like “global cooling”, a cold period could have deleterious effects on agriculture and is bound to be succeeded by further warming due to the high atmospheric CO₂ concentrations.

The current shift in state of the atmosphere-ocean-ice system signifies a return to conditions such as existed at the early Holocene, which were less favourable for farming. But it doesn’t stop there.

A further rise in CO₂ and temperature would lead to conditions which existed in the Pliocene before 2.6 million years ago, including many metres of sea level rise (around 10-40 metres), posing an existential threat to the future of civilisation.

Andrew will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEST on Friday, December 11, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Andrew Glikson, Earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.