18 June 2012

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

I have in the past given the title of "Fantasy Island" to the UK for pursuing an impossible approach to carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Over the next week a much bigger island will take that title (yes, yes, it is a continent, but this is a fantasy!). On July 1, Australia's carbon tax comes into effect, which has already prompted a new round of cheering and critiquing.

Representative of the cheering, Nature Climate Change has just published an essay that celebrates the tax as a model for other countries, without noting that it has been used intentionally as a political wedge issue making it deeply unpopular, and more importantly, that it will do almost nothing to help Australia to meet its short-term emissions reductions targets. This sort of willful blindness is endemic in climate policy discussions among those calling for action. Perhaps the thinking is that maybe if we pretend, then the fantasy will become real.

To understand why Australia's approach to emissions reductions will not just fail, but perhaps even mask BAU as progress, one simply need do a bit of math. Have a look at this analysis (here in PDF) of the targets and timetables of Australia's proposed short-term emissions reductions targets.

Here is the bottom line from the quantitative analysis:
Australia would need to undertake a herculean effort comparable to the level of effort required to build and put into service dozens or more nuclear power plants by 2020 or thousands of solar thermal plants. Were this ‘‘level of effort’’ to be expressed in terms of windmills or other existing technologies the magnitude would be equally as daunting. When coupled with very aggressive efficiency and renewable objectives the level of effort is still enormous. Australia, of course, has no nuclear power plants, and the technology is hotly debated, so even building one plant would be an enormous achievement.

The point being made here of course is not about nuclear power or even solar thermal plants, but about the enormous level of effort needed to meet the proposed short-term targets for Australian emissions reduction. The magnitude of the effort required helps to explain why policy makers look to offsets and other accounting schemes to achieve targets. Regardless of the nature of the legislation ultimately adopted in Australia, the actual decarbonization of the Australian economy will all but certainly fall short of the rates needed to hit the emissions reduction targets.
Of course, when pointing out such things the most common response is likely to be -- "Look boss, de plane, de plane!" I explain in the paper:
Australia has a very carbon intensive economy, thus its ability to dramatically accelerate the decarbonization of its economy offers the promise of many valuable lessons for other countries around the world. However, a focus on targets and timetables for emissions reduction that will be impossible to meet in practical policy implementation runs the risk of engendering public cynicism and even opposition. Currently the nature of international climate politics is such that aggressive promises are met with applause, regardless of their feasibility.
In the coming 10 days, we should expect much discussion of  Australia's carbon tax, but very little of it touching the ground. Welcome to Fantasy Island!


  1. Where is the news media? This is great stuff for investigative reporting. The Economist had a special section this week on arctic warming. Their solution is a carbon tax! They also assert that the technological solution is available.

  2. Their semantics are all wrong. They should call it a carbon "stimulus" and a large minority, if not a slight majority, would accept it willingly and even submissively.

    We should recall that reality yields to perception, especially when it is aligned with personal interest. Presumably, that is why less developed nations, and less fortunate individuals, have supported this punitive scheme.

  3. "Carbon tax" -- is it called a carbon tax because CO2 includes carbon? If everything which includes a carbon atom is considered pollution, I wonder what 'life' will be like in the future.

  4. Someone should tell them we are a carbon based life form and provide them with a free economics lesson. This is pure theft (redistribution) and control.

  5. Either I'm missing something, or there is a non sequitur here. It may well be the case that Australia's carbon tax is insufficient to meet it's short-term emissions targets. But this post doesn't demonstrate that the tax itself is misguided as a policy intended to incentivize investment in clean energy (or perhaps more accurately, to disincentivize new investment in dirty energy). So what if it doesn't help Australia meet its short-term targets as long as it helps start bending its emissions curve over the medium to long term? You gotta start somewhere. You have better suggestions?

  6. -5-104104160729500053379

    Thanks ... there will be no bending of the curve, this has already been admitted by the ALP gov't which says that targets will be met by offsets, plz see my linked paper.

    As far as better ideas? Here are mine:



  7. Thanks. I have had your book on my iPad for some time but confess I have not read it yet. I'm in general agreement with your approach on climate, btw - to the consternation of my fellow greenies.

  8. It seems Australia can be considered an island. "As a cultural construct, the concept of a continent may go beyond the continental shelf to include oceanic islands and continental fragments. In this way, Iceland is considered part of Europe and Madagascar part of Africa. Extrapolating the concept to its extreme, some geographers group the Australasian continental plate with other islands in the Pacific into one continent called Oceania. This allows the entire land surface of the Earth to be divided into continents or quasi-continents." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continent

  9. Another good metaphor for current climate policy is the blue pill. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill