The Paris climate deal has come into force – what next for Australia?


Peter Christoff, University of Melbourne

The Paris climate agreement comes into legal force today, just 11 months after it was concluded and 30 days after it met its ratification threshold of 55 parties accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, the Kyoto Protocol, which this treaty now replaces, took more than 8 years to come into force, slowed by the United States’ persistent and erosive opposition.

At the time of writing, the Agreement has been ratified by 94 parties, including the world’s four largest emitters: China, the United States, the European Union and India. As Climate Analytics reports, these nations account for 66% of greenhouse emissions. Even if the United States were to withdraw its support under a Trump presidency, the Paris Agreement will remain in force.

The unprecedented speed with which this has been achieved reflects the acute realisation in the international community – following the debacle of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 – that a failure to land this treaty quickly would probably have led to the collapse of the United Nations climate regime.

It also reflects the flexibility of the Agreement itself. Its curious mixture of binding and voluntary elements was designed to be attractive and accommodating, to include both developed and developing states and, specifically, to enable President Barack Obama to sidestep an obstructive US Congress in providing his support.

The result is a legal hybrid that obliges parties to abide by processes, mechanisms and timetables for setting and reviewing their national climate targets, and providing climate finance to developing countries.

But the treaty doesn’t compel those national efforts collectively to meet its core aims: to keep global warming well below 2℃ and as close as possible to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels; to peak global emissions as soon as possible; and to reach zero net global emissions in the second half of this century. Worse still, the currently pledged targets would deliver some 3℃ of overall warming by the end of this century.

Because the treaty relies on “intended” national climate targets rather than binding ones, much hinges on the success of the requirement for nations to review and toughen them every five years. The theory is that these global stocktakes of collective progress (beginning with a facilitative dialogue among parties in 2018) will generate enough pressure for individual nations to be encouraged to ratchet up their efforts as they go.

For these reasons – because of its emphasis on process and its lack of compliance mechanisms – the Agreement has been described as a promissory note, or prematurely criticised as inadequate.

A work in progress

Euphoria greeted the successful conclusion of the Paris summit last year, and 175 countries rushed to sign the Agreement when it opened for signatures in April this year (in all, 192 states have now done so). Nevertheless, given the Kyoto experience, few anticipated that this enthusiasm would carry the treaty across the ratification threshold so soon.

So while there will be more celebrations at this year’s UN climate summit, which begins in Marrakech on Monday, negotiators and UN bureaucrats have been caught out. In some senses, the Paris Agreement is a framework agreement within a Framework Agreement (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which this is a subsidiary part). It’s a work in progress with lots of details yet to be filled in.

The newly formed Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement will be scrambling to define key elements governing the new treaty’s implementation. Many of these elements are critical to the treaty’s long-term effectiveness. They include measures to ensure transparent and effective accounting of countries’ emissions reductions; to work out exactly how the ambition of “zero net emissions” will be met; and to transfer crucial economic measures used under the Kyoto Protocol over to the new framework.

The Agreement requests that this be done by the first session of the Conference of the Parties to the new treaty. As this now will occur in Marrakech, time is too short and such labour is likely to continue through 2017 and perhaps beyond.

From Paris to Australia

Australia is expected to ratify the Agreement later this year. When it does so, it will be committing itself to regularly increasing its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, improve climate adaptation, and provide climate finance.

Like other nations, Australia will have to review and toughen its climate targets every five years, starting no later than 2020, and report back regularly on its efforts.

While Australia’s 2020 and 2030 emissions targets are seen as weak by international standards, doubts have still been expressed about the federal government’s ability to reach them.

Modelling suggests Australia’s emissions are projected to rise to 21% above 2005 levels by 2030 – rather than fall by the 26-28% proclaimed in its official target.

Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund has been criticised as being underfunded and focused on the wrong projects. Recent analysis of the contracts awarded through the scheme’s “reverse auctions” confirms that little real additional abatement has been achieved.

Moreover, likely future changes in land use and forestry (mainly reductions in land clearing) will be insufficient to achieve these goals in isolation or to contribute significantly to future ones. The current policy mix means that tougher – and perhaps even existing – national targets could only be met by buying international carbon credits.

In addition, Australia’s reports to the UN will have to reflect “environmental integrity, transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability and consistency in accordance to rules to be adopted by parties to the Agreement”. The transparency and accountability of Australia’s emissions reporting was recently questioned by the United Nations and by other parties to the Climate Convention. This too will have to improve.

Like other parties, by 2020 Australia will also be invited to provide the UN Climate Secretariat with a long-term low-carbon strategy to run until 2050. Designing an effective transition strategy will require extensive consultation with state and territory governments, industries, and other stakeholders. Such attention to detail, although essential for building wide and deep support for a future low-carbon economy, has so far been well beyond the ability of politicians stuck in Canberra’s toxic climate policy culture.

In all, the Paris Agreement, although voluntary, can be thought of as a global climate safety net held by all nations. This inclusiveness means that Australia will no longer be able to point to the absence of other states as an excuse for its recalcitrance. It will increasingly be held to account by other nations, and the need for meaningful action will become ever more irresistible, as the net gradually tightens.

The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

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

Alan Jones goes after wind farms again, citing dubious evidence


Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

Last week, Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones lambasted those concerned about climate change and what he called “renewable energy rubbish”.

Jones has been loose with the facts in the past, having been Factchecked in 2015 after confusing kilowatts with megawatts and quoting a cost for wind power he later confessed “where the 1502 [dollars per megawatt hour that he stated] comes from, I have absolutely no idea”.

Jones, who chaired the much hyped but poorly attended 2013 national rally against wind farms in June 2014 (see photo) told his listeners last week wind farms are “buggering up people’s health”.

He also said “harrowing evidence” had been given by sufferers to the 2014-15 Senate Select Committee on Wind Farms chaired by (now ex-) Senator John Madigan. He along with Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Chris Back and Nick Xenophon have been vocal opponents of wind farms.

Their report predictably savaged wind farms, while Labor Senator Anne Urquhart’s minority report was the only one I found to be evidence-based.

Jones then went on to interview Dr Mariana Alves-Periera, from the private Lusophona University in Portugal (world university ranking 1,805, and impact ranking 2,848) whom he described as a distinguished international figure.

She was “recognized internationally” and had published “over 50” scientific papers over 30 years, something of a modest output. Jones, who may or may not have read any of these publications, told listeners her findings were “indisputable”, there was “no opposing scientific evidence” and again in emphasis, “none of [her papers] have been disputed” to which Alves-Periera agreed instantly “no they haven’t”.

This is an interesting interpretation of the scientific reception that has greeted the work of the Lisbon group on the unrecognized diagnosis of “vibroacoustic disease” (or VAD), a term they have made their own.

I first encountered Alves-Periera when she spoke via videoconference to a NHMRC meeting on wind farms and health in 2011. She spoke to a powerpoint presentation which highlighted the case of a schoolboy who lived near wind turbines. Her claim was the boy’s problems at school were due to his exposure to the turbines, as were cases of “boxy foot” in several horses kept on the same property.

Intrigued by this n=1 case report, I set out with a colleague to explore the scientific reception that “vibroacoustic disease” had met. We published our findings in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2013.

We found only 35 research papers on VAD. None reported any association between VAD and wind turbines. Of the 35 papers, 34 had a first author from the Lusophona University-based research group. Remarkably, 74% of citations to these papers were self-citations by members of the group.

In other words, just shy of three quarters of all references to VAD were from the group who were promoting the “disease”. In science, median self-citation rates are around 7%. We found two unpublished case reports from the group presented at conferences which asserted that VAD was “irrefutably demonstrated” to be caused by wind turbines. We listed eight reasons why the scientific quality of these claims were abject.

In 2014 Alves-Periera and a colleague defended their work in a letter to the journal and I replied. They described themselves as the “lead researchers in vibroacoustic disease”. But as we had shown, they are almost the only researchers who were ever active on this topic, with self-citation rates seldom seen in research.

Other experts have taken a different view of the group’s work. One of the world’s leading acousticians Geoff Leventhall who also spoke at the NHMRC’s 2011 meeting, wrote in a 2009 submission to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin about the Lisbon group’s VAD work.

The evidence which has been offered [by them] is so weak that a prudent researcher would not have made it public.

Another expert said:

vibroacoustic disease remains an unproven theory belonging to a small group of authors and has not found acceptance in the medical literature

And most recently, the UK’s Health Protection Agency said the:

disease itself has not gained clinical recognition.

Leventhall concluded his review by saying:

One is left with a very uncomfortable feeling that the work of the VAD group, as related to the effects of low levels of infrasound and low frequency noise exposure, is on an extremely shaky basis and not yet ready for dissemination. The work has been severely criticised when it has been presented at conferences. It is not backed by peer reviewed publications and is available only as conference papers which have not been independently evaluated prior to presentation.

Jones told his listeners the reason wind turbines are not installed on Bondi Beach, down Sydney’s Macquarie Street or Melbourne’s Collins Street was because governments “know they are harmful to health”. His beguiling logic here might perhaps also be the same reason we don’t see these iconic locations given over to mining or daily rock concerts. Most people would understand there are other factors that explain the absence of both wind turbines, mines or daily rock concerts in such locations.

Jones has given air time to a Victorian woman who is a serial complainant about her local wind farm and who has written:

Around the Macarthur wind farm, residents suffer from infrasound emitted by the turbines, even when they’re not operating.

At a time when we are seeing unparalleled increases in renewable energy and reductions in fossil fuels all over the world, one wonders why this is still public discussion in Australia.

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

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