A carbon price label is all-important: Schellnhuber
Climate change expert Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber says progress will be much easier now Australia has put a price signal on carbon emissions.
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Even if Australia and the rest of the world meet their stated targets to cut emissions, will it be enough to save the planet? Leading climate scientists meeting in Melbourne have been arguing their contention that, even if every commitment made so far is honoured, the world will still be four degrees hotter by the end of the century. Joining us to discuss what that means is a director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a key adviser to the German government, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, welcome to Lateline.
Why are we talking about a world that’s four degrees hotter by the end of the century? Wasn’t the agreed goal at both Copenhagen and also Cancun to limit the global warming to two degrees, and isn’t the world step-by-step taking action?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER, GERMAN GOVERNMENT CLIMATE CHANGE ADVISOR: It’s true, that we have political agreement among 194 countries that we should limit global warming to less than two degrees; in general, not just till the end of the century but for all times, if you like. Unfortunately, the political reality of climate diplomacy is telling us that we are on the wrong track. Right now we are heading for a world which will warm up by three or four degrees by the end of the century, but even worse is in store if you go beyond 2100.
We might have – on current course – to speak a warming of six to eight degrees by the year 2300 and that would be a completely different world.
ALI MOORE: And are these projections based on governments and countries only doing what they’ve said they will do now? Do they factor in new technologies? Do they factor in increased commitments?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: No, actually with the business-as-usual scenario, including the pledges made by various countries after Copenhagen – actually after Cancun – so we have a number of announcements from various countries where we will do something about climate policy. For example, Germany has planned to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by the year 2020 and actually, compared to the 1990 level, so I understand that’s much more than Australia’s planning to do. But if you factor all these things in and you assume yes, there will be some type of innovation, the thing you alluded to, we are still left with this tremendous amount of warming by the end of the century and even worse beyond that.
ALI MOORE: So what does a four per cent hotter world or four degree hotter world look like?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: I mean, people often say, well, I have fluctuations of temperatures between say Queensland and Melbourne and whatever, much higher levels – why should we care about it?
You have to compare it to body temperature. Our body temperature is about 37 degrees. If you increase it by two degrees, 39, you have fever. If you have add four degrees, it is 41 – you are dead, more or less. And you have to think about the body temperature of our planet, which has been brought about through many, many processes over many, many millions of years. So, disturbing our planet at such an amount would, as I said before, create a different world, it would mean agriculture would have to find completely new ways. And, by the way, Australia is surrounded by oceans – four degrees sustained for a while would mean at least seven or 10 metre sea level rise; probably it would melt down all the ice on this planet. That accounts to 70 metres, seven oh, metres in the long term.
ALI MOORE: And populations, what sort of a population could that sort of world support?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: That is a question I’m not really able to answer, but let me turn it around. Assume we have 10 billion people on this planet by the year 2100, we cannot imagine that under unbridled global warming they could all lead a decent life.
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: You can exist on almost nothing actually but, you know, in the end it’s about human dignity, I think, and with dignity it should be extended to future generations as well. The problem is always people think – and I call it in a sense the tyranny of the now – people think “Yes, I want to be better off a little bit, I want to keep my standard of living” and so on, but shouldn’t we also take into account the future generations also would like to lead a life in dignity. And I can more or less guarantee you that a life in dignity for 10 billion people under a four degrees or more scenario is impossible.
ALI MOORE: So against that background, working on that sort of modelling, does Australia’s target, our target of a cut in emissions on 2000 levels of five per cent by 2020, does that make any difference at all? Have any impact at all?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: It doesn’t make any difference at all when it comes to global emissions for a while. But you see, I come from a country where the same debate has been carried out for a while. After Fukushima, the nuclear accident, Germany has now embarked on a radically changed energy policy supported by 90 per cent of the population. Compared to that I think a lot of fuss is made here in Australia about a, I think, moderate, well-balanced package. So I was surprised to see in the headlines a very hot debate. The thing really is that this package – however it is designed – for the first time it’s creating a price signal. It means CO2 comes with a price label, and that is all-important because it means it will instigate innovation in order to produce cleaner, to consume cleaner – so it’s the first step on a long, long journey but if you don’t make the first step you will never end at your goal. In Germany we are a little bit further like that, but we are now looking for partners in our journey, the world’s clean energy, and Australia would be a first-rate partner, actually.
ALI MOORE: I guess time is of the essence. Do you feel, with what you know about various programs around the world now and the commitments that are already on the table, do you feel that four degrees is inevitable? Are you hopeful or optimistic that it can be averted?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: I’m optimistic … let me put it in different terms. I’m realistic, and realistically if you do the calculations – I’m a physicist by training – if you look at all the engineering options, we definitely can avoid four degrees, we can even halt to two degrees line. I’m deeply convinced about that. It’s all a question about the politics; whether the right framework conditions are being put in place. So I think that once you get an appetite for producing in a much smarter way – for example, saving energy, saving money, less pollution and so on – then the process may self-accelerate actually. The French say “The appetite comes when you start eating”, and it’s precisely what we hope will happen in Germany. It will happen in Australia. Actually the key word is innovation in the end. If you have the right price signal, innovation will start in certain sectors, and it will infect later on the entire economy.
ALI MOORE: At the same time though, if we look at trading schemes that we do have – for example, in Europe, the European Union trading scheme – many argue that’s actually not been very successful, because while emissions have been reduced it’s more to do with economic conditions than anything else. It hasn’t really … the scheme, hasn’t really done anything to accelerate that reduction?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: I mean, first of all, the scheme had teething problems, so to speak, some perverse effect. It has been remedied. We’re going into second phase and so on. Let’s see, I think the system is set up in a good way, but I think, again, let me come back to Germany. We have come out of the economic crisis in a splendid way, really. We have growth rate of four per cent, something unheard of before. We have almost full employment and so on, second largest exporter in the world and so on, and we’re still on our pledge of 40 per cent reduction of emissions by 2020. Quite to the contrary, a number of green jobs have been created, companies like Siemens and so on. We are thriving. We believe that our economic competitiveness will increase through reducing pollution. So we see ourselves as the first member in a fitness club for the 21st century.
ALI MOORE: A final quick question because we’re out of time, but is there a point of no return here?
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: It is a critical decade. Not for physical reasons so much, but we can calculate if we want to halt the two degrees line. Beyond that, a number of very unpleasant ecological effects kick in. Then we have to reach globally the peak of emissions, CO2 and so on, before 2020. Later on we could still clean up the atmosphere, things like that, but it would come at dramatic costs. So if we are able to turn the tide before 2020 we will be all better off.
ALI MOORE: Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, many thanks for joining us tonight and giving us your analysis.
HANS JOACHIM SCHELLNHUBER: You’re welcome.