Australian Tim Flannery tells us what he really thinks

Tim Flannery — professor, former Australian of the year, David Attenborough-acclaimed scientist and explorer, chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council — offers some free frank advice to New Zealand

Nicholas, Lord Stern is British, diplomat to his fingertips. Professor Tim Flannery is Australian: no less eminent, eminently personable, but a great deal more blunt.

He’s the keynote speaker today, with a subject range as diverse and riveting as the bio above might predict — when he’s finished with the farming, aphid-herding, barn-building ants, we move on, to Copenhagen negotiations, developing countries’ response to climate change, NZ’s ETS, a dash of politics, R&D funding, soil carbon, and more (as we like to say, here on Pundit).

On developing countries’ approach to post-Kyoto negotiations, and China’s, in particular: Their approach has changed, in the last year or so. Previously, he says, their stance was very much that since the developed world had created the climate change problem, and reaped carbon’s benefits, the developed world could fix it.

But China now knows it has no future in a business-as-usual world. Climate change risks for it are large.

Many of his comments match Lord Stern’s, our other recent important visitor; both men predict that China will make its reduction targets, having promised them. As reported by the New York Times: a 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity (not emissions) on 2005 levels by 2020; and from India, a similar commitment of 20-25%.

He says developing countries understand that the new energy economy is the future. China is heavily invested in photo-voltaic, wind, hydro, and transmission technology, with downstream effects for energy pricing — the cost of Aussie coal, for example. China will drive down the price of green tech.

China, in short, could finish the world, or save it; and it is trying to save it.

He compares Australia, and developed countries in general. Australia’s unconditional pledge in the Copenhagen Accord was a 5% emissions reduction, on 2000 levels. This is not insignificant: business as usual would see 21% growth on 2000 levels.

However, there is no programme that would allow Aus to honour that pledge, and very little time to start implementing one.

Sound familiar?

Later, he observes that the rich world has done so well out of this century’s fossil fuel technology, and sunk so much cost in it, it is hard for us to let go, and move on.

The roles have reversed, then; now it is we who are on the back foot. Who will be at the forefront of the new wave, the green revolution? Will we cede that power to the developing world; and if we do, will that be a conscious choice on our part, or just slackness? Either way, the irony is huge: if New Zealand loses in this race, it will be only because we were so worried about losing, we didn't dare try to win.

That was me speaking. Back to Professor Flannery.

On the size of the stakes: If every country honours its Copenhagen Accord pledge, he says, it would get us two-thirds of the way to where we need to be, to avoid dangerous climate change.

Recent NZ Sustainability Council work doubts whether the pledged reductions are real, at all, in terms of what the climate will actually see. But Flannery proceeds on the basis that they are.

At 450 ppm atmospheric carbon, he says we have a 60% chance of capping global warming at 2 degrees. There are other probabilities, of riskier outcomes. Also, real world climate changes are already being seen, far in excess of anything that the modelling predicted. So, if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, we have to work out how to achieve the extra one-third of emissions reductions very quickly. There’s no room or time for argument. By 2015 (compare Stern, again, at p 20) the world needs emissions to start taking a downward path.

On climate change politics: Heavy scientific and political pressure will come on countries who cannot deliver this by 2015, just five years from now.

Within, perhaps, the life of this government. Will they still like to be liked, in 2015?

One possible route to being able to deliver on the target is biological management. There was a point to the farming ants, and another aside, about bug-to-body-weight ratios: microbiology is life; there wouldn't be any life without it.

On the NZ ETS, and R&D funding: The research and development being funded in this country — $5 million per year for 10 years, for the new Agresearch initiative — is “inadequate” and “pathetic”. It will not be easy, figuring out the science, but the market will require it. And on the matter of farmers “paying good money for fertiliser and chucking it in the local creek”, “economic madness and environmental vandalism is what it is”, quite obviously at odds with our 100% pure brand. If he can see it, others can.

New Zealand’s response, he insists, has to start with enhanced R&D and end up with an ETS that incentivises individual farmers to reduce greenhouse emissions at their own farm level. Otherwise, he says, we will end up with an ETS that is simply a tax on production, the last thing farmers or the NZ economy want.

Lord Stern is an environmental and economic rock star, in his quiet civil way, but this man could teach him a thing or two. There’s a time and a place for everything, even Aussie brashness.

[Update: Speaking to Kathryn Ryan, on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon last week, Lord Stern said he had attended the China Development Forum in March, which was focused on low carbon growth for China. They also met Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who reiterated China's commitment to its Copenhagen targets.

He said China's 11th 5-year plan, which ends this year, had a target to cut emissions to output (ie, intensity) by 20%. It will make it, though it is having to push hard to get there.

When China makes plans, it meets them, he said. It understands its size, and how difficult climate change will be for China. It sees this as an opportunity, and a race that it wants to win.]