Culture

Junk Explained: Will The Paris Climate Deal Be Enough, And How Badly Is Australia Getting Left Behind?

Paris was great on the feel-good stuff, but it's time to get on with it.

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Well. Not only do we have a shiny new non-climate-denying Prime Minister, 195 countries have just signed off on a universal climate deal. And Malcolm Turnbull just lifted Abbott’s wind farm investment ban. Maybe things are looking up.

There’s certainly been a lot of reporting to this effect. The main points of the Paris pact see governments agree to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (an improvement on the previous two degree target), set a long-term goal for net zero emissions, review emissions reduction pledges every five years, and provide finance to help developing countries deal with climate change.

Even though critics are correct in pointing out that the agreement forged in Paris on Sunday isn’t the strong, world-saving mechanism it could have been, it’s certainly a relief to have some positive progress on the climate front.

But what will be the actual impacts of the agreement – and what does it mean for Australia?

The Leaner-Not-Lifter Country: How Australia’s Climate Commitments Fall Short

Most commentators see it as a starting point – a valuable one, but one to be improved on over coming years. Current promises to reduce emissions, if delivered on, will do nowhere near enough to meet the 1.5 degree target.

“If all parties kept their promises, the planet would warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels,” says Bill McKibben. “We are set to pass the one degree Celsius mark this year, and that’s already enough to melt ice caps and push the sea level threateningly higher.”

Not good news for the one million Australians who live on or near the coast. Or anyone else for that matter, with extreme weather like droughts, floods, storms and bushfires set to get worse under climate change, impacting everything from the food we eat to where we live.

But the strength of the Paris agreement doesn’t lie in its current targets – it’s in the potential for the deal to be used to increase or ‘ratchet up’ commitments to reduce emissions.

This brings us to Australia’s (to be kind) extremely modest target. Our government has committed to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent on 2005 levels over the next 15 years. Once you read the fine print, that’s a pretty poor effort – widely rated as inadequate by analysts including Climate Tracker.

Not only that, it’s uncertain if Australia will even deliver on this promise.

There have been some big, bold sentiments from Julie Bishop, Mark Butler and Prime Minister Turnbull, but what is Australia actually doing to stop dangerous climate change, apart from riding the wave of optimism following Paris (and receiving #HighAmbitionCoalition pins or getting photobombed by the Canadian environment minister)?

Julie Bishop’s 124-word media release doesn’t give much away. The Coalition are keeping quiet on their plans for climate policy, presumably to avoid any awkward questions in the lead-up to next year’s election (Labor haven’t been much more forthcoming, although at least we know they have a policy).

Here’s the thing. It’s not just that our government hasn’t been saying much, or even not doing much. Our political leaders been taking active steps to effectively scupper growth in the renewable energy sector we will rely on to meet international climate obligations, as well as continuing to back huge, polluting coal projects. Turnbull has also stated Australia won’t sign on to the international pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

As Sophie Morris pointed out in The Saturday Paper, the Coalition government, with Turnbull at the helm, is still pushing to scrap funding for clean energy innovation in Australia. They’re also pushing ahead with plans for the Carmichael mine, a project which, if it goes ahead, is estimated to release as much carbon pollution as all of Vietnam. And we still have an embarrassingly low renewable energy target.

A Window Of Opportunity: Getting On With Climate Action

Apart from the obvious problems with our government’s thinking on climate change, like our foreign minister waxing lyrical about coal’s potential to rescue the world from poverty, a big part of Australia’s climate foot-dragging is the stranglehold the coal and mining lobby has on our politicians.

The Paris agreement should provide a window for Turnbull, constrained by promises made to Coalition conservatives during the leadership spill, to begin to take serious action – particularly as the government’s Direct Action policy is scheduled for review in 2017. Lifting the ban on clean energy investment has been Turnbull’s first serious step away from Abbott’s climate and renewables policies, and the shift in the government’s tone, including supporting a more ambitious 1.5 degree target, is certainly welcome.

But as Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie, who attended the Paris talks, says: “after years of inaction, there is a lot of catching up to do.”

“The real work now is for the government to implement policies consistent with what the world agreed in Paris,” McKenzie says. “International leaders have expressed serious doubts over whether Australia can meet its obligations with the Direct Action policy. And the Australian government simply cannot approve new fossil fuel projects if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.”

“We also need to grow the solutions. Australia is the sunniest country in the world but one of the only countries to go backwards on renewables, with the government cutting the renewable energy target earlier this year. We need to implement policies that will see us ramp up renewable energy to at least 50 percent of our energy supply by 2030. The good news is that this means growing jobs and investment in Australia.”

So, we have options. Many eyes will be on the government as it prepares for next year’s election, from activists to the business sector, to see how Australia’s climate policy evolves after Paris. The missing part of the puzzle is the enforceability of promises made in Paris – an issue so important it nearly scuttled the Paris talks.

As John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, in absence of actual enforcement mechanisms in the text of the Paris agreement, holding countries to their promises “will rely largely on peer pressure”.

Let’s hope that after the media love-in has subsided, the peer pressure begins. Because five years seems like a rather long time to be aiming for targets that would deliver over three degrees of warming.

Emma is a freelance writer interested in arts and culture, sustainability, and design. @emmajukic/emmajukic.tumblr.com

Feature image by Takver on a Flickr Creative Commons licence.