Around the world an increasing number of detailed policy road maps are demonstrating the possibility, necessity and urgency of a rapid transition to a just and sustainable post carbon future. The key barriers to this transition are social and political, not technological and financial.
The Post Carbon Pathways report, published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and the Centre for Policy Development, has reviewed 18 of the most comprehensive and rigorous post carbon economy transition strategies.
As Australia enters the next phase of the climate change policy debate, this report will provide vital information on how other jurisdictions are designing and implementing large-scale plans to remove carbon from their economies.
The review focuses on transition road maps produced by governments with the strongest emissions reduction targets, such as Germany, Denmark and the UK. It also looks at the most comprehensive and influential non-government authored strategies such as Zero Carbon Britain, Zero Carbon Australia and World in Transition (German Advisory Council on Global Change).
Our analysis of these diverse ways of reaching a post-carbon future highlights several key lessons.
The window is closing fast
A wide range of detailed national and global level strategies demonstrate the technological and economic feasibility of rapidly moving to a post carbon economy. This goal can still be achieved at the scale and speed required to significantly reduce the risk of runaway climate change.
But the gateway for effective action is rapidly closing. Decisive action in the next five to 10 years will be critical.
There is a crucial difference between transition strategies that advocate a pragmatic and evolutionary approach and those that advocate more rapid and transformational change.
The less ambitious plans and strategies (which are generally government-led) often fail to adequately address the question, ‘given that the proposed actions won’t be enough to prevent runaway climate change, what can be done to bridge this gap?’. More ambitious plans and strategies (generally non-government authored), often fall down on answering the question ‘given that political and social support for rapidly implementing these proposals remains challenging, how do we bridge this gap?’
Technology is not the most significant barrier
Analysis of these strategies shows that technological barriers are not the most significant obstacles to a fair and swift transition to a post carbon economy
The integrated suite of technological and systemic changes needed to reach a just and sustainable post carbon future will clearly need to include:
-- Rapid reductions in energy consumption and improvements in energy efficiency;
-- Rapid replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy; and
-- Significant investment in forests and sustainable agriculture to draw down and sequester carbon into sustainable carbon sinks.
We already have the technologies to achieve emission reductions at the required speed and scale. Soaring investment in technological innovation, particularly in the United States, China and Germany, is driving down the price of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies at a remarkable speed.
Financial and economic barriers: significant but not insurmountable
The economic and social costs of failing to take action to reduce emissions are becoming increasingly clear – as are the multiple employment, health and environmental co-benefits of a swift transition to a post carbon economy.
Most strategies advocate a mix of market based and regulatory mechanisms, underpinned by clear long-term emissions reduction targets. Some authors however remain cautious of relying too much on carbon pricing. They recommend additional, more direct interventions such as binding renewable energy targets, feed-in tariffs, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and allocating the funds to close fossil fuel power stations.
Strategies with emissions reduction targets that are more strongly informed by climate science also commonly advocate a significant shift towards economic priorities which focus on improving social and ecological wellbeing rather than unconstrained growth in material consumption.
Investment to improve the capability to cost transition options is an urgent priority. However the most robust estimates of the costs of actions required to rapidly decarbonise the global economy range from $US200 billion to US$1,000 billion per annum to 2030. To give some sense of perspective, the 2008 United States bank ‘bailout’ cost US$700 billion.
There is no solution to climate change without climate justice
Intergenerational justice – the need to respect and protect the livelihoods and opportunities of future generations – remains the most powerful ethical justification for taking prudent and decisive climate change action now.
There is also widespread recognition that political support for a rapid transition to a post carbon economy depends on implementing policies to overcome key social equity challenges – within and beyond national borders.
The key barriers are social and political
The biggest barriers preventing a rapid transition to a post carbon future are social and political – not technological and financial.
The difficulty of securing and sustaining broad social and political support is widely recognised as the greatest barrier to a swift transition to a post carbon economy. The most significant gap in post carbon economy transition strategies is a lack of detailed game plans for mobilising political leadership and public support.
Worryingly, even the most optimistic of the social change theories underpinning these strategies, tend to rely on a variety of ‘Pearl Harbour’ scenarios in which one or more catastrophic ecological events would provide the necessary wake up call. The time lag between rising GHG concentrations and rising global temperatures makes over-reliance on such political tipping points increasingly risky.
A rapid transition to a post carbon economy will require strong leadership by national and local governments combined with broad grassroots mobilisation and enhanced global cooperation to set and achieve clear long-term emissions reduction targets.
The development and communication of inspiring stories and compelling images of a just and sustainable post carbon future will be particularly crucial.
Australia’s post carbon pathway leadership challenge
The Australian government’s 2020 emissions reduction target (a 5 per cent decrease on 2000 levels) is clearly still far from the level required for Australia to make a responsible and fair contribution to global emissions reductions. Australia’s 2050 target (an 80 per cent decrease on 2000 levels) is more robust. But there is no detail as yet as to how this target will be achieved.
Evidence from the most promising transition strategies elsewhere suggests we need a more informed and thoughtful debate about the kind of economic growth and industry mix that Australia should aim for. We need to talk about the fairest approaches to mobilising the required levels of financial, human and social capital.
Most importantly, a far more visionary level of political leadership will be required in order to drive an Australian climate change debate informed primarily by climate science rather than short-term calculations of political and economic feasibility.
John Wiseman is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. Taegen Edwards is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.