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The cost of not acting: Andrew Charlton on climate change

In his new Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton examines the hard decisions Australia needs to make between progress and planet.

‘The atmosphere at the Copenhagen climate conference was extraordinary,’ said Andrew Charlton, to a large audience at The Wheeler Centre.

‘It was half summit, half carnival. There were protestors everywhere. There was a choir of Catholic nuns in the foyer singing climate change songs.’

Charlton, a former senior advisor to Kevin Rudd, was Australia’s senior official at the Copenhagen climate conference. He quickly pointed out that despite this sense of hope, there was a negative dynamic behind closed doors.

‘There was a clear division between two camps. Those who want to save the planet, and those who want to save themselves.’

Charlton is the author of the newest Quarterly Essay, titled Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet, a sobering appraisal of the effort needed to seriously address climate change.

In Charlton’s assessment, it was unrealistic to expect that the Copenhagen climate conference would achieve a global binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases.

‘First world countries were there expecting an agreement to solve the climate change problem. But the developing nations had a very different perspective. Environment is important, but poverty was their chief concern.’

Charlton’s essay relies on the hard evidence of facts and figures. With nine out of ten of the fastest growing greenhouse gas emitting countries being from the developing world, he believes that the solution lies with making energy less expensive and more available.

‘Twenty per cent of the world’s population isn’t connected to an energy grid. We can address this problem, the problem of poverty, by concentrating on technology. We need to be innovative, and reconcile the two problems. That is a solution that developing countries will get behind.’

Charlton thought Australia’s recent progress with putting a price on carbon was modest, and wouldn’t effectively deal with the problem.

‘The carbon tax is a good step, and necessary, but we need to be realistic about what it can achieve. It will get us about a third and the way to our five per cent reduction target.’

‘The climate change problem is greater than any politician would admit to the public,’ Charlton said.

Charlton believes that despite a push towards renewable energy, these attempts would be grossly inadequate.

‘We would need 250 solar plants the size of Moree Solar Farm to achieve five per cent reductions,’ Charlton said. ‘That’s one a week opening until 2020.’

The Moree Solar Farm, estimated to cost $923 million, commences construction in mid 2012.

‘We would need five wind turbines a day until 2020. This kind of response is costly and unrealistic.’

Charlton said that while he is not against exploring these options, Australia needs to adopt a flexible policy.

‘We need to do what we can with what we have, but be ready to adopt alternatives as soon as they are available.’

Climate change is only one one of the global issues that Charlton addressed, with food shortages and population predictions also given attention.

‘We have many problems that we need to face as a planet. Every twelve years, there is another billion people on the planet. Living standards are going up, and we aspire to consume more. We need to double our food production by 2030 across the planet. If we fail to meet that, we will have problems of starvation.’

‘We’re concerned about running out of oil, but people have been predicting the end of oil for generations. We’re not running out of oil, we’re running out of planet.’

Despite the challenges seeming impossible, Charlton is optimistic that a solution could be found to the problem of climate change.

‘We’ve had massive agricultural challenges. We’ve had energy constraints. We keep overcoming these problems by ingenuity. We have overcome extraordinary challenges, through the process of compounding innovations,’ Charlton said.

‘We can’t pretend there won’t be costs, that it will be outplayed. We can’t focus on the real costs. Focus instead, on the cost of not acting.’

Matt Smith is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University, and is upstart’s co-editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @nightlightguy.

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