Australia’s climate diplomacy is like a doughnut: empty in the middle

Robyn Eckersley, University of Melbourne

There is a profound disconnect between Australia’s international climate diplomacy and its national climate and energy policies.

The diplomacy could be cast in positive terms, on the surface at least.

During the first week of the climate negotiations in Paris, Australia displayed a preparedness to be flexible and serve as a broker of compromises in the negotiations over the draft Paris Agreement.

Australia has also agreed to support the inclusion of a temperature goal to limit global warming to 1.5℃, which is a matter very dear to the hearts of Pacific Island nations for whom climate change is a fundamental existential threat.

Australia will serve as co-chair (with South Africa) of the Green Climate Fund in 2016, which will be channelling money to the most vulnerable countries in the Pacific and elsewhere to enhance their preparedness for the harmful impacts arising from a much warmer world.

In his address on the opening day of the conference, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia would ratify the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto II) and commit A$200 million a year in climate finance going forward to 2020.

And on the sidelines of the negotiations, environment minister Greg Hunt announced that Australia would provide A$1.2 million towards the Coral Triangle Initiative for Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Security.

He also unveiled the Blue Carbon research project to explore how the protection of marine and coastal habitats could reduce emissions by storing carbon while also protecting biodiversity and fisheries.

Yet appearances can be deceiving. The A$200 million in annual climate finance comes from the aid budget and is not new or additional. Nor does it represent an enhanced commitment relative to previous contributions.

And it is widely acknowledged that an enhanced commitment to climate finance by rich countries to assist poor countries to develop clean energy and adapt to climate change will be central to garnering the support of developing countries to a Paris agreement.

Australia had every reason to ratify Kyoto II, since it had one of the lowest emissions targets in the developed world for 2020 (5% below 2000 levels).

Australia has also been able to benefit from greenhouse gas accounting rules (including a carry over of surplus emissions allowances from the first commitment period) that will enable achievement of this target at the same time as greenhouse emissions outside the land sector are set to increase by around 11% by 2020.

Contrast this with Germany, the UK and Denmark, which announced that they will cancel their surplus emission allowances and not carry them over for Kyoto II.

Australia’s climate diplomacy is therefore like a doughnut: a few some promising initiatives around the edges but nothing in the middle.

The missing middle, of course, is robust domestic targets and policies for 2020 and the post-2020 period.

Get serious

If Australia was really serious about aiming for a more ambitious temperature target to stand firm with its neighbours in the Pacific, then it would have domestic politics that were commensurate with this ambition.

As the strong contingent of civil society organisations from Australia at COP21 have been quick to point out, Australia’s domestic policy settings, including significant fossil fuel subsidies, actively encourage fossil fuel production and use.

These subsidies, along with the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, cast the burden on the public to pay for the cost of carbon pollution, rather than the polluters.

The first week of the negotiations included a string of announcements of new initiatives on divestment from fossil fuels and efforts to promote the phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. This included a communiqué on fossil fuel subsidy reform, signed by eight non-G20 countries (including New Zealand and Norway) and supported by France and the United States.

Australia declined to give its support to the communiqué. Turnbull said Australia would have supported it if it had been restricted to “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies.

Yet economists describe fossil fuel subsides as perverse because they harm the economy (by propping up inefficient industries) and the environment, and soak up scarce public money that could be better spent elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the government’s decision to approve the giant Carmichael coal mine in Queensland will completely cancel out any of the modest goodwill provided by Australia’s diplomacy.

Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index for 2015 ranked Australia 60th out of the 61 countries surveyed – second last to Saudi Arabia. This is down from 57th last year.

No amount of flexible and constructive climate diplomacy, or negotiating support for Pacific Island nations, can hide the fact that Australia’s domestic policies are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Robyn Eckersley is attending COP21 in Paris as an accredited observer. This post originally appeared on the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute’s COP21 blog.

The Conversation

Robyn Eckersley, Professor of Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


COP21 is still on track as countries drop their more unfeasible ambitions

Robert Stavins, Harvard University

The first week of the COP21 Paris climate conference has drawn to a close, and the delegates have taken some brief and well-deserved time off before returning to the negotiations today. They are moving towards a final agreement by the scheduled adjournment on Friday – or more likely, by an extended adjournment on Saturday (or even Sunday).

The draft text of what will become the Paris Agreement is now 48 pages long, with abundant bracketed insertions of suggested text. The eventual agreed text will likely be about half to two-thirds this length.

Progress is being made. In terms of my scorecard previously posted on this blog, here is where things stand in regard to my five criteria of success for the Paris talks.

Criterion 1: Include at least 90% of global emissions in the set of climate pledges (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol).

This has been achieved, with today’s total number of submitted INDCs reaching 157, reflecting 184 countries (including the European Union member states), and covering about 94% of global emissions and 97% of the global population. An additional 3% of global emissions will be covered by separate international aviation and maritime transport regimes.

Criterion 2: Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. For many years, what Europe and the United States saw as the necessity for transparency regarding emissions and emissions reduction efforts was seen by China and some of the other large emerging economies as a threat to national sovereignty. But China, in various statements, has gradually moved closer to recognising the importance of transparency for monitoring, reporting, and verification.

Criterion 3: Begin to set up a system to finance climate adaptation (and mitigation) — the famous US$100 billion commitment. A key question has been whether the accounting of these funds would include private-sector finance, in addition to public-sector finance (that is, foreign aid). It appears very likely that leveraged private-sector finance (that is, foreign direct investment) will be counted as part of the total, which is good news. Now, a key question is whether the final text will also include some reference to the US$100 billion being only a floor – a view favored by developing countries.

These finance issues could still upset the talks, but that appears unlikely. One way or another, agreement should be reached by the weekend.

Criterion 4: Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs.

There is emerging agreement of the importance of providing for periodic review and revisiting of INDCs, but the exact timing is still up in the air. Anything less than 5 years is not feasible, and anything longer than 10 years looks problematic. I expect that the delegates will converge on text that specifies something within that range.

Criterion 5: Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage”, which looks to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries, and the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law.

The loss and damage issue is difficult, because the interests of the wealthy countries, at one extreme, and the most vulnerable countries, such as the small island states, at the other, are so divergent that negotiations can become polarised. But it is highly unlikely that even the most aggressive of the most vulnerable countries would want to bring down the whole house of cards just for the sake of this issue.

There has been more progress on discussions in the corridors, if not in the negotiations, regarding the eventual legal status of the agreement. The French have now recognised publicly that their previous position arguing that the entire agreement, including the numerical contributions in the INDCs, be binding under international law is simply not feasible. Among other things, it would mean that the Paris Agreement would require Senate ratification in the United States, which means that the United States would not be a party to the agreement. No one wants to repeat the Kyoto Protocol experience.

Finally, there is more and more talk about stating in the agreement some aspirational target that is more ambitious than the frequently discussed 2℃ limit for temperature increase this century (relative to the average pre-industrial temperature). Despite the passion with which many countries, particularly the most vulnerable ones, have spoken on this, the final text is unlikely to enshrine a new global objective, given how difficult it was to reach agreement on the current one.

So my fundamental prediction for Paris continues to be – according to my specified criteria – eventual success when the talks adjourn. Again, for those of you who would like to keep up on the work of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, here is a web page describing our activities in Paris and related to the Paris climate talks here.

The Conversation

Robert Stavins, Professor of Business and Government, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Eyes down: how setting our sights on soil could help save the climate

Budiman Minasny, University of Sydney; Alex McBratney, University of Sydney; Brendan Malone, University of Sydney, and Uta Stockmann, University of Sydney

The world’s soils could be a key ally in the fight to limit global warming to 2℃, thanks to their ability to store carbon and keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

France’s agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll has founded an ambitious international research program, called “4 pour mille” (“4 per 1000”), which aims to boost the amount of carbon-containing organic matter in the world’s soils by 0.4% each year.

The program was launched officially today at the United Nations climate summit in Paris, with the hope to sign up as many nations as possible.

How much carbon do soils store? A lot. At about 2.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, soil is the largest terrestrial carbon pool, and the top 2 metres of the planet’s soils hold four times as much carbon as all the world’s plants. Carbon stored in soil can also stay there for a very long time relative to carbon in plants.

Thanks to recently published maps of global soil carbon stocks, we can work out how much extra carbon needs to be stored in soils (and where) in order to meet the target.

The size of the task

There are roughly 149 million square kilometres of land in the world, so if all the world’s soil carbon were dispersed evenly there would be 161 tonnes per hectare. Hitting the 0.4% target would mean increasing soil carbon stocks by 0.6 tonnes (600 kg) of carbon per hectare per year, on average.

But of course, soils around the world vary widely in carbon storage – tropical peat soils, for example, hold about 4,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare, whereas sandy soils in arid regions may only hold 80 tonnes per hectare. The type of above-ground vegetation and how quickly the soil microbes use the carbon can also affect the amount of storage. Generally speaking, only a quarter of organic matter added to soil ends up being stored as carbon in the long term.

Farmers and other landowners would need detailed information about what exactly they will need to do to their own soils to boost their stored carbon by the required amount.

Is the target achievable?

Studies around the world suggest that soil carbon can potentially be stored at a rate of 500 kg of carbon per hectare per year – slightly below the average target – by reducing tillage and planting legume cover crops.

These estimates change with soil type and climatic regions. Our research suggests that some cropland areas of the world have the potential to hit the 0.4% target, locally at least, through more modest overall increases in carbon storage. Restoring the soil’s carbon content in these areas is a win-win situation, as it will offset greenhouse gas emissions and boost soil quality at the same time.

One such place is Australia, where current soil carbon estimates suggest that the 0.4% target could be met by boosting soil carbon by just 220 kg per hectare – something that could easily be delivered in places that are not suffering drought.

The “4 per 1000” aspiration is an ambitious one, but perhaps even more important is the effect this initiative will have on promoting good soil management, which in turn can help to mitigate climate change. By encouraging farming practices that store more carbon, we can also help farmers improve the quality of their soils and boost food security at the same time.

The Conversation

Budiman Minasny, Associate Professor in Soil Modelling, University of Sydney; Alex McBratney, Professor of Soil Science, University of Sydney; Brendan Malone, Research fellow, University of Sydney, and Uta Stockmann, , University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.