Environment & energy | Australia, The World

27 April 2021

The harsh reality of decarbonisation is that the world must not add to the carbon cycle – anything short of this is inadequate, Bodhi Hardinge writes.

Organisations and governments, as well as much of society, are grappling with the immense challenge of decarbonisation in an attempt to mitigate the impacts of climate change. This issue will persist while consumption remains linked with the emission of greenhouse gases.

The harsh reality of decarbonisation is that society must ultimately decouple consumption from emissions, anything less is failure. Policies at every level must then acknowledge the fundamental physical reality that any addition to the carbon cycle contributes directly to climate change. Every effort should be directed to avoid calamity.

Decarbonisation is often presented as incrementally reducing the emission intensity of consumption and production, but this misses the point. Reframing decarbonisation as seeking justification for emissions is crucial to any legitimate strategy or policy.

While managing the impacts of climate change is much more complex than merely halting addition to the carbon cycle, it is still fundamental to solving the world’s climate problems. Simply put, the issue the world faces is about the total amount of water in the bucket, not the rate at which water is being added.

What this means is that lowering emission intensity, while framed as improvement, amounts to still adding ‘water to the bucket’ – greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – and a continuation of the emissions problem. Of course, this is better than continuing at higher emission intensities, but it should not be celebrated as success. It is merely a reduction of the problem’s intensity, not a solution to the problem.

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The language and content of decarbonisation policies should therefore focus on eliminating the problem of emissions. Any addition to the carbon cycle should be scrutinised and justified, as reducing the intensity of the problem is not the objective. Total decarbonisation is, of course, impractical in many cases, but if the world is to succeed at avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, every effort should be made to avoid adding to the carbon cycle where plausible.

There may have to be residual addition to the carbon cycle when forms of consumption require fossil fuels as a chemical feedstock, and there will be instances where complete decarbonisation is prohibitively difficult. However, these cases must be the exception, not the rule.

Crucially and at every opportunity, policies aiming to tackle climate change must acknowledge that disincentivising any addition to the carbon cycle is fundamental. These policies must be about inverting the onus of responsibility from those who try to reduce the problem to those who are contributing to the problem.

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This is a strong position to take, but it reflects the underlying reality. It will often be the case that when policymakers are asked if a decision adds to the carbon cycle, their response will be a begrudging ‘yes’, even for those decisions that will ultimately reduce net-emissions.

There will often be legitimate reasons to go ahead with the decision in this case, but when a decision involves any addition to the carbon cycle, its justifications must be scrutinised.

Any addition to the carbon cycle should be framed as a continuation of the problem, not a solution.

To shift the onus of responsibility in this way, policymakers must consistently be asked important questions, like whether all climate, regulatory, and financial risks have been adequately accounted for in any given decision. For example, to justify emissions based on the availability of offsets or achieving negative emissions in the future is fundamentally substituting climate risk with financial and regulatory risks. This is replacing climate action with climate speculation.

It is prudent in policy to mitigate risk, and the risk to the climate is the foremost risk to the world. If policymakers are serious about mitigating it, their key decisions should be reframed toward the complete decarbonisation of production and consumption, and anything less should be seen for what it is: assuming risk.

Ultimately what this means is once policymakers have come to terms with the reality of climate change, every decision they make should seek to decouple economic activity the from addition to the carbon cycle, and any deviation from this principle should be thoroughly scrutinised and justified.

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