Climate & Biodiversity Join Forces in the Economics of Nature
Because rainforests and restored river basins store vast quantities of carbon, we can design
the carbon economics of the 21st century so that for the first time in human history we can
grow the world economy without destroying nature. Here’s an edited version of Peter Cosier’s Wentworth Talk at the Sydney Theatre Company, hosted by Cate Blanchett, part of which was also shown on Sky Business Eco Report.
The international Copenhagen conference was supposed to be the great defining moment when the world leaders were to agree on how to solve the world’s climate change problem. They failed.
Peter Cosier, Executive Director and Founding Member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, asks why can’t we agree to take action that is so patently in our own self interest? What is the science telling us we need to do to manage the risk of runaway climate change? What are the solutions? How feasible is it to do? What can we do as individuals do to break the impasse?
Here is an edited version of Peter Cosier Wentworth Talk on Monday 8 February at the Sydney Theatre Company:
Thank you Cate for your wonderful introduction, for your personal commitment to conservation, and for hosting the first of what I hope will become a regular fixture of talks at the Sydney Theatre Company.
The world’s climate scientists tell us that we need to keep greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere below 450ppm CO2e if we are to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees (above pre-industrial levels)15.
To have any chance of achieving that target, highly industrialised economies such as Australia, on a per capita basis, will have to reduce our existing greenhouse gas emissions in the order of 97 percent by 2050 (based on a 15% probability).
All the world’s industrial and industrialising economies will need to reduce their emissions by similar amounts: Europe by 93%, the United States by 97%, China 79%. The implication of a global stabilisation target of 450ppm is simple, but profound.
No matter which phase in the industrial revolution countries are in, we are going to have to completely decarbonise the world’s energy production systems and we are going to have to restore a positive carbon balance in the world’s natural landscapes – our forests and our agricultural lands – and we have 40 years to do it.
The argument against action is founded on the cost of action: the cost to economic growth and jobs.
So let’s just leave that aside for the moment that “the cost of action is less than the cost of inaction” and simply look at the cost of action.
In 2008 the Australian Treasury released what has been described as the most comprehensive analysis of the economic impact of deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions on the Australian economy.
There is economic pain, because as Treasury says, demand will shift from emission intensive products such as coal, aluminium and road transport, towards lower emission products such as renewable energy, wood products and rail.
The solution to climate change has not one, but two components: yes, we do need to decarbonise the world’s energy production systems, but we are also going to have to restore a positive carbon balance in the world’s natural landscapes – our forests and our agricultural lands.
It is in this second component that lies at the heart of what humanity is capable achieving: what I call the economics of nature in the 21st century.
Because rainforests and restored river basins store vast quantities of carbon, we can design the carbon economics of the 21st century so that for the first time in human history we can grow the world economy without destroying nature.
This is an unbelievably important concept.
A 15% increase in the world’s terrestrial carbon stock would remove the equivalent of all the carbon pollution emitted from fossil fuels since the beginning of the industrial revolution.24
Carbon economics of the 21st century present our generation with the opportunity to not only stabilise the world’s climate system, but to also create an economic system that will conserve the world’s biodiversity.
Healthy landscapes store vast quantities of carbon. Biodiversity is carbon.
Let me give you just two of hundreds upon hundreds of examples of how terrestrial carbon can help solve the world’s climate problem: conserving the world’s tropical rainforests, and repairing degraded landscapes across the Australian continent.
Conserving the World’s Tropical Rainforests
Tropical rainforests cover 7% of the world’s land surface, yet they contain almost half of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.
The Amazon, the African Congo, and just to our north, the Indonesian archipelago. Over half of these forests have already been cleared, and current clearing rates are staggering – 13 million hectares of tropical rainforest is cleared every year.
But tropical deforestation is not only destroying nature, it is also directly releasing the equivalent of 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This represents a staggering 20% of all global carbon emissions.
If the western industrial economies of Europe, Australia and America are prepared to invest, it will not only help the world address climate change, it will for effectively no additional cost, also finance the conservation of vast tracts of tropical landscapes, and, in the process, open up new economic opportunities for people in the developing world. It will be one of the great legacies of our generation.
Repairing Australia’s Degraded Landscapes
A price on carbon can also be the catalyst for driving a new generation of economic reforms that will transform the way we farm in Australia and the way we manage our natural landscapes.
We have been struggling in Australia for decades with land and water degradation, and the
loss of our unique biodiversity.
We have built great institutions, the Landcare movement, the Catchment Management Authorities, conservation groups such as Bush Heritage and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, but we have never had the financial resources even within an order of magnitude to deal with the problems we are confronting.
Action on climate change will change all that.
CSIRO has assessed the biophysical potential of the Australian landscape to store carbon. If Australia were to capture just 15% of this biophysical capacity, it would offset the equivalent of 25% of Australia’s current annual greenhouse emissions, every year for the next 40 years.
This represents a gross investment potential of terrestrial carbon in Australia of between $3 billion and $6 billion per annum.
Whilst there will be many issues affecting whether this potential is converted into reality, the implications are that a price on carbon presents an economic opportunity of almost unimaginable scale to pay our farmers to help us to fix a raft of major environmental challenges facing Australia:
• restoring native vegetation along the nation’s rivers, wetlands and estuaries;
• expanding habitat to create viable populations of threatened species, which is a
foundation stone for the long-term conservation of biodiversity; and
• improving soil carbon in agricultural landscapes, which have been in slow decline over
the past two centuries.
Our landscapes are built from carbon and the new carbon economy would fundamentally transform the way we farm in Australia and the way we manage the Australian environment.
We must stand up and challenge our friends to think about the consequences of inaction, rather than use uncertainty as an excuse for putting off hard decisions. But most importantly, we need to stop seeing climate change as a threat to economic prosperity and see it as the great opportunity of our generation to set humanity up for the next industrial revolution of the 21st century.
We now know that a modern economy can provide the means for protecting life on earth and still deliver spectacular economic growth, so it’s no longer a question of money. It’s not the machines that are the problem, it’s us.
Our parents invested in the economic future of their world with spectacular success. Now it is our turn. We must invest in the future of our natural world. This is the great challenge of our generation.
In 2010, Sydney Theatre Company is joining with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists to present The Wentworth Talks, a series of free bi-monthly presentations and panel discussions at The Wharf led by guest speakers addressing a wide range of topics relating to climate change and the environment.
The Wentworth Talks: Professor Bruce Thom
Professor Bruce Thom
COASTS: how best can we adapt to the challenges of climate change?
The Next date for the Wentworth Talk
Monday 19 April at 6.30pm