Why Australia should not sign the Kyoto protocol

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With Russia having recently ratified the Kyoto protocol it will come into action on 16 February. It has again raised the question whether Australia should join or not. Martin Callinan (NM Issue 20: A new Australian position on climate change) clearly argued for a more positive stance towards Kyoto. The official Federal government reason given for not signing is one of costs of compliance. Another reason often cited includes not wanting to join unless the US does so.

In this article it is argued that Australia should not sign because the Kyoto protocol is based on the naive premise that all countries stand to lose equally from climate change. Unlike many other countries, Australia can reasonably expect to benefit from the greenhouse effect and should thus be compensated for efforts to reduce its effect.

The first issue is whether there truly is a greenhouse effect. The answer to this has been 'yes, to the best ability of science to say so'. Using data from Greenland and South Pole ice cores that map the world's climate as far back as about 150 thousand years, it seems that current world temperature is at its highest point for some 120 thousand years and still rising. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere held responsible for this have risen beyond any historical comparison. Even in the world's last great warm period 120 thousand years ago, CO2 levels were about half of today's levels of 400 parts per million.

Furthermore, it is beyond much doubt that it is our energy consumption that is driving this CO2 increase: CO2 levels in the world's atmosphere have almost doubled in the last 200 years with the advent of the industrial revolution and the computed usage of fossil fuel in those years is sufficiently high to account for the increase in our atmosphere. Indeed, our current use of fossil fuels is so high that oil is predicted to run out within fifty years. The likely successors to oil look to be (various forms of) coal, gas, and perhaps non-fossil fuels (such as alcohol or linseed oil) which will thus in effect push CO2 levels even higher for quite a while after oil runs out.

The baseline prediction that the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) came up with in 2000 is that the earth as a whole is likely to warm by about 2.5 degrees Celsius in the next century (dimming may reduce this number); with average rainfalls increasing by some 10 per cent (higher temperatures mean more of the ocean evaporates which has to come down as rainfall somewhere).

It should be noted that the effect of Kyoto on these predictions is virtually nil. Bjorn Lomborg, known by his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, calculated that even if all countries were to ratify and implement Kyoto, it would have no more than a 3 per cent effect on the pace of climate change. Though disputing many of his other claims, even Kyoto proponents (such as Martin Callinan) had to agree it is no more than a start. Kyoto will lead to no more than a symbolic rather than a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions where a substantial reduction would require serious impediments to economic growth.

The notion that the Rich World or the booming economies of South East Asia and Latin America, whose boom is accompanied by unprecedented increases in energy consumption, are going to seriously curtail their economies in order to avert climate outcomes is, in the present political climate, absurd. No country has put forward a proposal that would really alter matters nor does the world seem likely to get agreement in such an event. Can you, for instance, imagine the government of India, whose economy is finally growing fast enough (8 per cent last year) to promise real improvements for millions of poor Indians, stopping that growth to help avert world climate change? No realist could think the pressures towards averting climate change would outweigh the pressures for increasing energy consumption. Hence a realist should brace him or herself for climate change. It's going to happen. The question is whether Australia has much to fear and thus whether it should play any leadership role in attempts to change the current climate trajectory.

What does the warming of the planet then imply in terms of changes that may affect human habitation? The first effect that is often mentioned is that it would lead to a melting of the glaciers on Greenland, the North Pole, and the South Pole. If all that happened, sea levels would rise by some seventy meters – enough to ensure the demise of most currently inhabited coastal lands of the world. This is not likely to happen in a hurry though, nor is it true that all forms of glacial melting will have much effect. If the whole of the North Pole, for instance, melted away, this would have no effect on sea levels at all simply because the North Pole ice cap already increases water levels by the fact that it lies on the water and thus displaces as much water as it contains in the form of ice.

What matters for rising sea levels is thus whether the glaciers on Greenland and the South Pole melt away, and even then it is not relevant what happens to those glaciers already afloat. Even the most pessimistic scenarios would have the Greenland glaciers melt in no less than 1000 years. Furthermore, the predicted temperature increases are by no means high enough to lead to the melting of the South Pole.

Hence one should more realistically look for a couple of meters increase in sea levels at the most in the coming centuries. This may spell disaster for several countries (such as Bangladesh or the Netherlands) whose coastlines are long and have to defend very shallow lands. A simple look at the geology of Australia reveals it has very little to fear in this regard though: Australia has no significant shallow coastland to speak of. At most, some harbours would have to be relocated but the blunt truth is that Australia rises from the sea so steeply in nearly all places that a couple of meters increase in sea levels is not going to lead to significant loss of arable land. This in turn implies that countries that expect to lose much from rising sea levels should offer Australia, who would expect to lose little, compensation for the costs it would incur to avert rising sea levels.

Another effect often quoted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would be strong local increases in temperature and even decreases in rainfall in some places. Every couple of years CSIRO comes up with a new set of main predictions about the likely future climate of Australia. The predictions of CSIRO and other climate institutions are, however, all over the place. Predictions for the temperature in Sydney in fifty years time range from a cooling by 1 degree to a warming by 6 degrees Celsius (CSIRO 2001).

The heart of the matter is that the ability to predict long-term climate change at the local level is as yet extremely poor. Ocean currents, cloud behavior, vegetation response, the fate of ocean sinks and predominant wind directions: these are all up for grabs in predictions and though the scientists try their best they really can't say with much more certainty about our future climate than give a prediction for the world as a whole.

It is in this respect handy to reflect on whether Australia's climate could really get much worse than it is at present, as some predictions would have you believe. Australia is already extremely dry and hot compared to other countries at the same latitude. One would really have to stack the deck heavily in unlikely directions to get at situations in which Australia's climate would get even worse (bear in mind that it's much easier to get additional funding if you flag impending doom rather than when you say all is ok).

The bottom line is that an increase of 2.5 degrees Celsius and 10 per cent more rain would probably increase agricultural yield rather than reduce it, although this is hard to say with certainty. The areas that would be adversely affected, such as the already bone-dry infertile interior that is predicted to become even hotter, don't produce much food anyway. The issue hinges on the more productive colddry areas in South and South East Australia, where the best soils are. Both of those regions could do with a bit more rain and would not necessarily suffer from higher temperatures either.

There is another, more direct, positive effect of climate change though. Increases in CO2 concentrations directly make plants more fertile, known as the carbon dioxide fertilization effect. The causal mechanism is that plants and trees (anything that photosynthesizes) excrete water through their leaves in order to extract CO2 from the air (evapotransporation). When the concentration of CO2 is higher, plants get more CO2 for the same amount of water excreted. Hence, with the same amount of water, they grow faster when CO2 concentrations increase. This effect of CO2 increases has indeed been confirmed to hold for the growth of trees in the US. Tree ring widths have thus significantly increased in the last 200 years for bristlecone pine, limber pine, and fox tail pine in the Great Basin of California, Nevada, and Arizona and bristlecone pine in Colorado.

This last effect should not be underestimated: satellites measuring this tell us that biomass production is increasing, though not equally everywhere. A deep environmentalist should thus rejoice at net gains in total biomass and burn as much fossil fuel as possible in order to release the trapped CO2 in fossils for current plants to increase their photosynthesis. The evidence is mixed as to whether deserts have truly sprung to life because of this mechanism though some studies indeed suggest the Sahara is actually receding because of this effect. If you need convincing: when is the last time you heard the fear that the Sahel, which is the strip of countries just below the Sahara, was going to turn into unproductive desert as feared decades ago? The truth is that it has seen increases in food production in the last twenty years!

Net world production of plants is increasing because of the increases in CO2, rain, and temperature. All one could reasonably complain about is the distribution of gains and losses and 'collateral damage' such as loss of coastlands. Note though that on a world level, there are probably as many gains as there are losses: there are enormous slabs of land in Siberia and Canada that would become extremely fertile with higher temperatures and more CO2 and it thus makes eminent sense to compensate those countries for reducing CO2 emissions (Russia indeed stands to gain from Kyoto).

Australia stands to benefit a lot from the CO2 increases in the last centuries. Holding all else constant, it would increase its agricultural production significantly. Add to that the likely benefits of more rainfall and the fact that Australia stands to lose little from sea level increases, and a powerful case emerges for Australia to remain hesitant about Kyoto. If other countries that do stand to lose a lot want Australia to engage in costly measures to avert climate change, then they should simply compensate Australia for doing so. If those countries standing to lose are not willing to compensate Australia, then that signifies that they are looking for a free ride at Australia's expense.

All this is not to say that Australia or the world does not have serious environmental problems. We're on an unprecedented environmental trajectory whose end no-one knows. Erosion; weeds; the extinction of many animals and plants; the loss of world habitat available to other species; the depletion of ocean fishing stocks; these and many other problems Australia faces in conjunction with the rest of the world. CO2 emissions, however, are probably not a serious problem for Australia and we should not be lulled into joining the ineffective and minimalist Kyoto protocol solely for the symbolic value of doing so. A system that does not recognize that some countries are likely to benefit from climate change will not work and is more likely to become part of the problem than part of the solution.

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