What Morrison’s climate policy will cost

Scott Morrison loves saying he won’t take action on climate change without knowing what it will cost. Joel Fitzgibbon takes the same tack when defending his coal mining constituents.

Well thanks to a review commissioned by that notorious left-winger, Boris Johnson, we now have an accurate and frightening assessment of just how big the cost of not taking action is.

Cambridge University’s Professor Emeritus Economics, Partha Dasgupta, has just published a 600 page report, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. The Review demonstrates that we need to adopt a system of economic accounts which allow us to “judge whether the path of economic development we choose to follow is sustainable.” That involves an inclusive measure of wealth which includes Nature as an asset.

The report recognises the huge economic growth over recent decades but points out much of this has been created by unsustainable pressure on Nature by resource extraction and dumping of waste and that there are limits to growth. The laws of physics, indeed, dictate that there is very probably some maximum sustainable level of GDP.

In a hard-headed, rational evaluation of options the Review concluded that “The options for change are geared towards three broad, interconnected transitions, requiring humanity to:

  • ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level;
  • change our measures of economic success to help to guide us on a more sustainable path; and
  • transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.”

The Review looks at how we got to our current situation, some historical successes and failures and how we have overshot the natural capacity of Earth. If we keep going at the same rate we would need one and half Earths to provide the natural resources, it argues, reminding us of Gandhi’s comment about British industrial development: “How many planets?”

It used traditional econometric and accounting practices to look at capital goods, rates of return, public asset management, the character of natural capital and compares total and marginal values.

The biodiversity section seeks to measure biodiversity and also assess the value, quantity and quality of ecosystem productivity; takes into account depreciation costs; and, looks at the Scott Morrison- Angus Taylor dream – technology.

Chapters include detailed analysis of costs and benefits and the intellectually robust version of all the economic and accounting paraphernalia which often accompanies the reports commissioned by companies and governments to demonstrate how wonderful the destructive projects they wish to pursue are. Dasgupta and team naturally come to vastly different conclusions.

The Dusgupta Review is a dense read and its length is not amenable to being easily digested by your average backbencher or journalist, let alone a Prime Minister whose analytical capacity extends to brief marketing slogans or over-used glib dismissals of the latest scandal and corruption involving his Ministers and Government. There is a very brief summary available though.

The Review really needs to be at the centre of Australian climate change policy. As  Boris Johnson said when welcoming The Dasgupta Review, it makes clear that “protecting and enhancing nature needs more than good intentions – it requires concerted, coordinated action.”

“This year is critical in determining whether we can stop and reverse the concerning trend of fast-declining biodiversity,” he said.

As this is also the year when land clearing in Australia is still going on and bushfires – this time in WA – are devastating bushland and independent reports reveal frightening losses of biodiversity it is doubly critical for us.

The UK has already demonstrated that you can cut emissions and drive economic growth. The Economist (14 February 2021) reports: “The elimination of power stations that burn coal has helped Britain cut its carbon emissions faster than any other rich country since 1990. They are down by 44%, according to data collected by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) during a period when the economy grew by two-thirds.”

Morrison may not read many environmental reports other than the executive summary of ones prepared by the Institute of Public Affairs but his family has probably watched David Attenborough on TV.

Attenborough says in a foreword to the Dasgupta report: “This comprehensive, detailed and immensely important report is grounded in that understanding. It explains how we have come to create these problems and the actions we must take to solve them. It then provides a map for navigating a path towards the restoration of our planet’s biodiversity.

“Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core and provides the compass that we urgently need.

“In doing so, it shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology together, we can help save the natural world at what may be the last minute – and in doing so, save ourselves,” said.

And  if Johnson and Attenborough aren’t enough for Morrison (without wishing to deploy an extended argument from authority) he could also read Bill Gates new book – How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. He might like the sections on nuclear power but not much of the rest.