What would a fair energy transition look like?

Franziska Mey, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Briggs

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced last week that a federal Labor government would create a Just Transition Authority to overseee Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This echoes community calls for a “fast and fair” energy transition to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Read more:
Labor’s policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions

But disruptive change is already here for Australia’s energy sector. 2018 has been a record year for large-scale solar and wind developments and rooftop solar. Renewable energy is now cheaper than new-build coal power generation – and some are saying renewables are now or soon will be cheaper than existing coal-fired power.

Based purely on the technical lifetime of existing power stations, the Australian market operator predicts that 70% of coal-fired generation capacity will be retired in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria by 2040. If renewables continue to fall in price, it could be much sooner.

We must now urgently decide what a “just” and “fair” transition looks like. There are many Australians currently working in the energy sector – particularly in coal mining – who risk being left behind by the clean energy revolution.

Coal communities face real challenges

The history of coal and industrial transitions shows that abrupt change brings a heavy price for workers and communities. Typically, responses only occur after major retrenchments, when it is already too late for regional economies and labour markets to cope.

Coal communities often have little economic diversity and the flow-on effects to local economies and businesses are substantial. It is easy to find past cases where as many as one third of workers do not find alternative employment.

Read more:
Energy transitions are nothing new but the one underway is unprecedented and urgent

We often hear about power stations, but there are almost 10 times as many workers in coal mining, where there is a much higher concentration of low and semi-skilled workers. The 2016 Census found almost half of coal workers are machinery operators and drivers.

The demographics of coal mining workers in Australia suggest natural attrition through early retirements will not be sufficient: 60% are younger than 45.

Mining jobs are well paid and jobs in other sectors are very unlikely to provide a similar income, so even under the best scenarios many will take a large pay cut.

Another factor is the long tradition of coal mining that shapes the local culture and identity for these communities. Communities are particularly opposed to change when they experience it as a loss of history and character without a vision for the future.

Lastly, the local environmental impacts of coal mining can’t be neglected. The pollution of land, water and air due to mining operations and mining waste have created brownfields and degraded land that needs remediation.

What is a ‘just’ transition?

A just transition to a clean energy economy has many facets. Unions first used the term in the 1980s to describe a program to support workers who lost their jobs. Just transition was recognised in the Paris Agreement as “a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”.

However, using the concept of energy justice, there are three main aspects which have to be considered for workers, communities and disadvantaged groups:

  • distributing benefits and costs equally,

  • a participatory process that engages all stakeholders in the decision making, and

  • recognising multiple perspectives rooted in social, cultural, ethical and gender differences.

A framework developed at the Institute for Sustainable Futures maps these dimensions.

Institute for Sustainable Futures

A just transition requires a holistic approach that encompasses economic diversification, support for workers to transition to new jobs, environmental remediation and inclusive processes that also address equity impacts for marginalised groups.

The politics of mining regions

If there is not significant investment in transition plans ahead of coal closures, there will be wider ramifications for energy transition and Australian politics.

In Australia, electricity prices have been at the centre of the “climate wars” over the past decade. Even with the steep price rises in recent years, the average household still only pays around A$35 a week. But with the closure of coal power plants at Hazelwood and Liddell, Australia is really only just getting to the sharp end of the energy transition where workers lose jobs.

There are some grounds for optimism. In the La Trobe Valley, an industry wide worker redeployment scheme, investment in community projects and economic incentives appears to be paying dividends with a new electric vehicle facility setting up.

AGL is taking a proactive approach to the closure of Liddelland networks are forming to diversify the local economy. But a wider transition plan and investment coordinated by different levels of government will be needed.

Read more:
What types of people will lead our great energy transition?

We know what is coming: just transition investment is a precondition for the rapid energy transition we need to make, and to minimise the economic and social impacts on these communities.The Conversation

Franziska Mey, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


‘Keep it in the ground’: what we can learn from anti-fossil fuel campaigns

Fergus Green, London School of Economics and Political Science

From the fossil fuel divestment movement to the Stop Adani campaign, in recent years we’ve seen a wave of climate activism that directly targets fossil fuels — both the infrastructure used to produce, transport and consume them, and the corporations that finance, own and operate that infrastructure.

What makes targeting fossil fuels so attractive for activists, and can we learn anything from them?

Read more:
The fossil fuel divestment game is getting bigger, thanks to the smaller players

Failure to launch

Climate change became a topic of mainstream international concern in the early 1990s. For the first two decades of international climate cooperation, until the failed Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the international environment movement embraced a more “technocratic” approach. Professionally-staffed environment groups made technical arguments aimed at persuading politicians and the public to adopt global climate treaties, national greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and complex market-based policy mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes.

Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies

All of these things, if sufficiently stringent, would have been great if they were politically possible. But the groups advocating them were politically weak; they had few political resources. Consequently, in the competition to influence policy they were systematically outgunned by the fossil fuel industry.

Not only did the environment movement lack money and power over the economy, they lacked public support for their policy agenda. While public concern for climate change throughout this period was widespread, it was shallow. It was a political priority for few people, and fewer still were willing to take to the streets to demand strong, urgent action.

A protestor at the coal port in Newcastle.

Why fossil fuels resonate

Compared with such ineffective climate activism, the present wave of anti-fossil fuel politics has an important advantage: it resonates better with ordinary people.

First, fossil fuels and associated infrastructure are readily understood by lay audiences. In contrast, concepts such as greenhouse gases, “2°C average warming”, and “350 ppm” are abstract, technical constructions not readily grasped by laypersons.

Read more:
A matter of degrees: why 2C warming is officially unsafe

Second, whereas the harms caused by climate change are hard to understand and (perceived to be) remote from their cause in time and space, the production, transport and consumption of fossil fuels cause and are popularly associated with a range of other harms on top of climate change.

These include: local environmental, health and other socio-economic impacts, as well as corruption, repression, human rights abuses and other injustices along the supply chain. Most of these affect people living or working close to fossil fuel infrastructure such as mines, pipelines and coal-fired power stations.

Local communities faced health problems when the Hazelwood coal mine caught fire in 2014.

Surveys about energy sources in the US and Australia, for example, support the claim that fossil fuels are unpopular. In China, local air pollution caused by fossil fuels is one of the biggest public concerns. And case studies from various countries indicate the potential for proposed fossil fuel infrastructure to generate strong local opposition, social conflict, and wider media attention.

Third, targeting fossil fuels helps to personalize the causes of climate change. One of the reasons climate change is not psychologically salient to most people is that it is typically perceived to be an unintentional side-effect of the everyday actions of billions of people. This makes it hard for us to attribute blame.

Read more:
Unburnable carbon: why we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground

But the fossil fuel industry is disproportionately responsible for our dependence on emissions-intensive energy. Targeting the industry helps to concentrate moral pressure on these more culpable agents and stokes the indignation that fuels climate activism.

Among anti-fossil fuel campaigns, the fossil fuel divestment movement aims most directly and explicitly to delegitemise the fossil fuel industry.
Studies show that the divestment movement has, in a very short time, had a revitalising effect on climate activism through the mobilisation of young people, and improved wider public discourse toward climate change action, among other beneficial effects.

Divestment protesters at UNSW in Sydney.

Targeting fossil fuels also has advantages when it comes to the other elements of successful social movement activism — resource accumulation, alliance-building, and sustaining participants’ enthusiasm over time.

A necessary part of climate politics

Targeting fossil fuels is not the only way to build more successful movements around climate action. Campaigns providing a more positive vision around renewable energy, for example, have also been successful in mobilising grassroots support, and are a crucial component in contemporary climate activism. And successful grassroots mobilisation is not everything: elite politics and international relations also greatly affect climate policy.

But building wide and deep social movements committed to urgent climate action is a necessary element of the political task before us. As the rising tide of anti-fossil fuel activism shows, if campaigners work with the grain of ordinary human motivation, drawing on what we know about the psychology and sociology of social movements, then they are in with a fighting political chance.The Conversation

Fergus Green, PhD Candidate in Political Theory, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fossil fuel emissions have stalled: Global Carbon Budget 2016

Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

For the third year in a row, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have barely grown, while the global economy has continued to grow strongly. This level of decoupling of carbon emissions from global economic growth is unprecedented.

Global CO₂ emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and industry (including cement production) were 36.3 billion tonnes in 2015, the same as in 2014, and are projected to rise by only 0.2% in 2016 to reach 36.4 billion tonnes. This is a remarkable departure from emissions growth rates of 2.3% for the previous decade, and more than 3% during the 2000s.

Given this good news, we have an extraordinary opportunity to extend the changes that have driven the slowdown and spark the great decline in emissions needed to stabilise the world’s climate.

This result is part of the annual carbon assessment released today by the Global Carbon Project, a global consortium of scientists and think tanks under the umbrella of Future Earth and sponsored by institutions from around the world.

Global CO₂ emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and industry. Emissions in 2016 (red dot) are based on a projection.

Fossil fuel and industry emissions

The slowdown in emissions growth has been primarily driven by China. After strong growth since the early 2000s, emissions in China have levelled off and may even be declining. This change is largely due to economic factors, such as the end of the construction boom and weaker global demand for steel. Efforts to reduce air pollution and the growth of solar and wind energy have played a role too, albeit a smaller one.

The United States has also played a role in the global emissions slowdown, largely driven by improvements in energy efficiency, the replacement of coal with natural gas and, to a lesser extent, renewable energy.

What makes the three-year trend most remarkable is the fact that the global economy grew at more than 3% per year during this time. Previously, falling emissions were driven by stagnant or shrinking economies, such as during the global financial crisis of 2008.

Developed countries, together, showed a strong declining trend in emissions, cutting them by 1.7% in 2015. This decline was despite emissions growth of 1.4% in the European Union after more than a decade of declining emissions.

Emissions from emerging economies and developing countries grew by 0.9% with the fourth-highest emitter, India, growing at 5.2% in 2015.

Importantly, the transfer of CO₂ emissions from developed countries to less developed countries (via trade of goods and services produced in places different to where they are consumed) has declined since 2007.

CO₂ emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and industry for the top 4 global emitters.

Deforestation and other changes in land use added another 4.8 billion tonnes of CO₂ in 2015, on top of the 36.3 billion tonnes of CO₂ emitted from fossil fuels and industry. This is a significant increase by 42% over the average emissions of the previous decade.

This jump in land use change emissions was largely the result of increased fires at the deforestation frontiers, particularly in Southeast Asia, driven by dry conditions brought by a strong El Niño in 2015-16. In general, though, long-term trends for emissions from deforestation and other land use change appear to be lower for the most recent decade than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The carbon quota

When combining emissions from fossil fuels, industry, and land use change, the global economy released another 41 billion tonnes to the atmosphere in 2015, and will add roughly the same amount again this year.

We now need to turn this no-growth to actual declines in emissions as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will be a challenge to keep cumulative emissions below the level that would avoid a 2℃ warming, as required under the Paris Agreement.

As part of our carbon budget assessment, we estimate that cumulative emissions from 1870 (the reference year used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to calculate carbon budgets) to the end of 2016 will be 2,075 billion tonnes of CO₂. The remaining quota to avoid the 2℃ threshold, assuming constant emissions, would be consumed at best in less than 25 years (with remaining quota estimates ranging from 450 to 1,050 billion tonnes of CO₂). Ultimately, we must reduce emissions to net zero to stabilise the climate.

The carbon budget to keep mean global temperature below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels with more than 66% probability, showing used carbon budget (black) and remaining carbon budget (red). Values rounded to nearest 50 billion tonnes of CO₂. The remaining quotas are indicative and vary depending on definition and methodology.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Professor, Earth System Science and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University

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

Phasing out fossil fuels for renewables may not be a straightforward swap

Anthony James, Swinburne University of Technology

To have any chance of preventing dangerous climate change, the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or even negative by mid-century. Many experts suggest this means we need to completely phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Several studies have concluded that 100% renewable energy supply systems are technically and economically feasible. This informs the widespread view that fossil fuels can be more or less “swapped out” for renewables, without significant economic consequences.

We are strongly sympathetic to the need for a rapid global shift away from fossil fuels. But new modelling conducted independently and made publicly available by my colleague at the Understandascope, Josh Floyd, suggests that such a transition may face significant challenges.

Future energy

Analyses of how to get to 100% renewable energy typically look at how future energy sources can supply enough energy to meet a given future demand.

This is what’s known as an “energy balance”. The high-quality work of Mark Diesendorf and his colleagues on the transition of Australia’s electricity supply to 100% renewables typifies such modelling.

But this approach doesn’t tell us what will happen to overall energy supply during the transition.

This new modelling suggests a significant decline in availability of overall energy services during the transition phase. This reflects the increased energy demand associated with the transition task itself.

Such an energy “trough” would significantly impact the economy during the transition. This has flow-on consequences for how to maintain the massive renewables roll-out.

What are net energy services?

To investigate what might happen to energy availability during transition, the model looks at “net energy services” at a global scale.

Net energy services are the total work and heat that energy sources – for instance solar photovoltaic (PV) systems or petroleum – make available to end users, minus the energy services required to provide that supply.

Petroleum requires energy services to find, produce, transport and refine it. Solar PV systems require energy services for mining raw materials, manufacturing, installation, replacement and so on. The net services are what remains available for all other purposes, such as heating buildings and moving goods and people.

A rapid, large-scale energy transition creates extra demands for energy services. This demand will compete with other economic activity.

The speed of transition matters

To start with, the model assumes that fossil fuels are phased out over about 50 years. Biomass, hydro and nuclear contributions are assumed roughly to double.

The model then attempts to maintain the net energy services to the global economy at the maximum level before the fossil fuel phase-out. To do this it uses electricity from onshore wind turbines and large-scale solar PV plants, buffered with lithium ion batteries.

The findings show that the faster the transition rate, the greater the energy services required by the transition task, and the lower the services available for other uses.

This is because of the time lag between energy investments and returns. It is exacerbated for sources where up-front energy investment is a relatively high proportion of the total life cycle, particularly so for solar PV.

A 50-year fossil-fuel phase-out represents a relatively modest transition rate. Even so, in the model’s baseline scenario, net energy services decline during that transition period by more than 15% before recovering.

And that recovery is not certain. The model doesn’t consider how this decline in energy services might affect the transition effort. If less energy services are available, then energy transition will come at the expense of other economic activity. That may impact the collective will to continue.

The cost of transition

In the model’s baseline scenario – phasing out fossil fuels over 50 years – wind and solar plants need to be installed at eight to ten times current rates by 2035.

Financially, this corresponds with capital investment in wind and solar PV plants plus batteries of around US$3 trillion per year (in 2015 dollars) and average lifetime capital cost in the order of US$5 trillion to US$6 trillion per year.

For comparison, in 2014 the International Energy Agency forecast global investment for all energy supply in 2035 at US$2 trillion per year.

This implies that total expenditure on energy supply will increase its share of world spending, reducing scope for other expenditure. Compounding the decline in energy services during transition, this has potential to apply contractionary pressure to the global economy. This has implications in turn for financing and maintaining the political will for the renewables rollout.

What if it were possible to roll out renewables even faster? This could reduce the depth and duration of the decline, but not eliminate it. Again, due to the time lags involved, accelerating deployment in the short term takes energy services away, rather than adding them.

What does this mean?

Of course, this is “just” modelling. But good models can tell us a lot about the real world. If this modelling is right, and energy services fall and costs rise, we’ll have to complement building cleaner energy supply with other approaches.

The other key aspect of transition that we have control over is how much energy we expect to use. Usually discussions of transition focus on maintaining energy supply sufficient for a growing economy much like we see today – just with “clean” energy. But this is changing.

Growing numbers of analysts, business leaders and other prominent figures are calling for broader cultural change, as it becomes clearer that technological change alone is not enough to avoid climate catastrophe and myriad other consequences of energy-intensive consumer societies.

This is about more than efficiency. It is about a shift in our collective priorities and how we define progress, wellbeing and quality of living. Reducing energy demand within these redefined aspirations will markedly improve our prospects for successful transition.

This article was co-authored by Josh Floyd, advisor on energy, systems and societal futures at independent research and education organisation the Understandascope, and founding partner of the Centre for Australian Foresight.

The Conversation

Anthony James, Lecturer with the National Centre for Sustainability , Swinburne University of Technology

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

Burning fossil fuels is responsible for most sea-level rise since 1970

Aimée Slangen, Utrecht University and John Church, CSIRO

Global average sea level has risen by about 17 cm between 1900 and 2005. This is a much faster rate than in the previous 3,000 years.

The sea level changes for several reasons, including rising temperatures as fossil fuel burning increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In a warming climate, the seas are expected to rise at faster rates, increasing the risk of flooding along our coasts. But until now we didn’t know what fraction of the rise was the result of human activities.

In research published in Nature Climate Change, we show for the first time that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the majority of sea level rise since the late 20th century.

As the amount of greenhouse gases we are putting into the atmosphere continues to increase, we need to understand how sea level responds. This knowledge can be used to help predict future sea level changes.


Measuring sea level

Nowadays, we can measure the sea surface height using satellites, so we have an accurate idea of how the sea level is changing, both regionally and in the global mean.

Prior to this (before 1993), sea level was measured by tide gauges, which are spread unevenly across the world. As a result, we have a poorer knowledge of how sea level has changed in the past, particularly before 1960 when there were fewer gauges.

Nevertheless, the tide gauge measurements indicate that global mean sea level has increased by about 17 cm between 1900 and 2005.

What drives sea level rise?

The two largest contributors to rising seas are the expansion of the oceans as temperatures rise, loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets, and other sources of water on land. Although we now know what the most important contributions to sea-level rise are, we did not know what is driving these changes.

Changes in sea level are driven by natural factors such as natural climate variability (for example El Niño), ongoing response to past climate change (regional warming after the Little Ice Age), volcanic eruptions, and changes in the sun’s activity.

Volcanic eruptions and changes in the sun affect sea level across years to decades. Large volcanic eruptions can cause a temporary sea-level fall because the volcanic ash reduces the amount of solar radiation reaching the ocean, thus cooling the ocean.

Humans have also contributed to sea level rise by burning fossil fuels and increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Separating the causes

We used climate models to estimate ocean expansion and loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets for each of the individual factors responsible for sea level change (human and natural). To this we added best estimates of all other known contributions to sea level change, such as groundwater extraction and additional ice sheet contributions.

We then compared these model results to the observed global mean 20th century sea-level change to figure out which factor was responsible for a particular amount of sea level change.

Over the 20th century as a whole, the impact of natural influences is small and explains very little of the observed sea-level trend.

The delayed response of the glaciers and ice sheets to the warmer temperatures after the Little Ice Age (1300-1870 AD) caused a sea-level rise in the early 20th century. This explains much of the observed sea-level change before 1950 (almost 70%), but very little after 1970 (less than 10%).

The human factor

The largest contributions to sea-level rise after 1970 are from ocean thermal expansion and the loss of mass from glaciers in response to the warming from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. This rise is partly offset by the impact of aerosols, which on their own would cause a cooling of the ocean and less melting of glaciers.

The combined influence of these two factors (greenhouse gases and aerosols) is small in the beginning of the century, explaining only about 15% of the observed rise. However, after 1970, we find that the majority of the observed sea-level rise is a direct response to human influence (nearly 70%), with a slightly increasing percentage up to the present day.

When all factors are considered, the models explain about three quarters of the observed rise since 1900 and almost all of the rise over recent decades (almost 90% since 1970).

The reason for this difference can be found either in the models or in the observations. The models could underestimate the observed rise before 1970 due to, for instance, an underestimated ice sheet contribution. However, the quality and number of sea level observations before the satellite altimeter record is also less.

Tipping the scales

Our paper shows that the driving factors of sea-level change have shifted over the course of the 20th century.

Past natural variations in climate were the dominant factor at the start of the century, as a result of glaciers and ice sheets taking decades to centuries to adapt to climate change.

In contrast, by the end of the 20th century, human influence has become the dominant driving factor for sea-level rise. This will probably continue until greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and ocean temperatures, glaciers and ice sheets are in equilibrium with climate again.

John will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEST on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Aimée Slangen, Postdoctoral research fellow, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University and John Church, CSIRO Fellow, CSIRO

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

Climate justice and an end to fossil fuels: the Paris agreement won’t satisfy activists

Rebecca Pearse, University of Sydney

A global climate agreement was adopted in Paris on Saturday evening, but it will leave activists demanding direct action on fossil fuels and energy market reform.

Before the Paris talks even began there were activists arguing that the negotiations would not deliver what they want. The Climate Justice Action network said that the COP21 will continue a 20 years of ineffective climate policy, demonstrated by a 65% rise in fossil fuel emissions since 1990.

Naomi Klein said she “refused to put our future in the hands of [negotiators] cloistered in the Bourget”. Klein places more hope in bottom-up energy democracy.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s protests were about saying campaigns for climate justice will continue.

Has activist pessimism about the agreement been justified?

The Paris Agreement doesn’t stack up

Klein argues that there is some “good language” in the agreemnt. The Paris text recognises the need to cap temperature rises at 1.5℃. However, the language doesn’t match national pledges for action. These pledges are so weak that a dangerous 3 or 4 degrees warming is likely.

The agreement also notes “the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change.” But the substance of agreement falls far short of what movements mean by the term.

One of the main issues activists have raised is the absence of reference to fossil fuels in the Paris Agreement. The agreement aims for “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks” after 2050.

Reference to reducing fossil fuels, or even “decarbonisation” would have been better. The vague language of “balance” between (fossil fuel) “sources” and “sinks” opens up the possibility for loopholes, such as “forest carbon offsets” and technologies activists oppose such as “clean coal” and nuclear energy.

Loopholes are familiar terrain for Australian negotiators, who have secured the continuation of a 1997 land carbon accounting loophole to meet Australia’s 2020 target. It is an accounting rule that will allow further emissions increases in energy and industrial sectors with no penalty.

Opaque carbon terminology typical in climate agreements turns the climate issue into an unhelpful abstraction. The concrete problems climate movements want addressed are about energy and inequalities, which are systemic and difficult to change.

Movements want ‘system change’

Activist pessimism about the Paris Agreement reflects the fact climate movements want to change society and transform energy systems more rapidly and fundamentally than the UN system allows for. They do this by bringing people together, online and in public spaces, to put pressure on governments and corporations to change.

The climate movement is a contemporary version of what Immanuel Wallerstein called “anti-systemic movements”. Anti-systemic movements want to transform societies, and in this case, humanity’s relationship with ‘nature’.

Movements calling for “climate justice”, carry on traditions of the alter-globalisation movement, other forms of environmentalism, feminism, anti-colonial and socialist movements.

Climate justice movements are diverse, but there is a fundamental principle informing activist practice: climate change is a consequence of unequal, colonial, economic and social power relations.

Protests during the Paris negotiations illustrate the diverse strands of this anti-systemic agenda. The slogans were “Flood the system” and “Connect the dots”. Flood the system is a reference to anti-capitalist protests during the peak of the financial crisis. Connecting the dots means recognising the links between climate change and systemic inequalities.

Activists consistently point out that the impacts of climate change are greatest for marginal social groups, and that historical responsibility for climate change is concentrated in a small number of corporate and government hands.

Their analysis was symbolised in protests in the past weeks. The People’s Climate March and the People’s Parliament protest were both represented by Pacific Islanders, indigenous people, and mining-affected community members. They targeted Parliament, as well as a bank and fossil fuel company and coal infrastructure.

Given that climate justice movements want systemic change, it’s unsurprising that the Paris Agreement is not enough for activists. However, this is not to say that anti-systemic movements simplistically oppose all reform, or that movements don’t create new policy agendas.

Movements want reform too

There are two strong messages from activists about energy policy.

  • 1) There needs to be a limit placed on fossil fuels

  • 2) There needs to be regulation and public investment to facilitate affordable renewable energies.

As time as gone on, the political focus on abstract carbon targets and carbon pricing has diminished. Climate organisations like 350.org have translated their focus on global carbon target of 350ppm (a technical term for concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) into connected local campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

There are new research organisations documenting the fossil fuel assets that need to be retrenched in order to stay within a 1.5-2-degree limit. This year’s Australia Institute campaign for “no new coal mines” is concrete policy that would help keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Whether or not direct regulation of energy markets is politically feasible is an unanswered question. However, seeking change through complex and ineffective emissions policy like carbon trading has also been difficult for activists.

The road from Copenhagen goes beyond Paris

The last major climate talks held in Copenhagen in 2009 saw public protests like those last week. There was a broad sense that it was the last chance for a global agreement that could avoid dangerous climate change.

When the Copenhagen Accord was deemed a flop, a sense of failure was keenly felt by climate movements. The numbers of people engaged in climate activism dropped considerably from 2010.

But activists did continue to mobilise. After Copenhagen the social and environmental effects of Australia’s export mining boom in coal and gas were intensifying. New campaign organisations such as Lock the Gate and Land Water Future changed Australian climate politics. These groups are resisting fossil fuels, but climate mitigation is not the only, or central, motivation.

Food and water security, indigenous land rights, and farmer’s property rights have become much more salient than ever before. These campaigns have led to temporary moratoriums on coal seam gas, numerous inquiries, new water protections, and a debate about whether land owners should be able to say no to fossil fuel companies.

Renewable energy campaigns have matured since 2009, with new citizens campaigns developing the case for community renewable energy projects and fair access to the electricity grid for Australia’s 1.4 million rooftop solar owners. While these campaigns have struggled to get new policies, the resilience of the Renewable Energy Target is evidence that governments cannot risk losing voters who support renewables.

This week’s climate negotiations were one moment in a long battle. Activists are moving “through” and “beyond” Paris and will continue campaigns against fossil fuel dependence and for a “just energy transition”.

In doing so, movements will go on highlighting the failures of climate policy. They are changing what is politically feasible for Australian governments.

The Conversation

Rebecca Pearse, Research Associate, University of Sydney

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

Growth in fossil fuel emissions slowed in 2015, so have we finally reached the peak?

Pep Canadell, CSIRO

Despite robust global economic growth over the past two years, worldwide carbon emissions from fossil fuels grew very little in 2014, and might even fall this year.

A report released today by the Global Carbon Project has found that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide grew by only 0.6% in 2014, breaking with the fast emissions growth of 2-3% per year since early 2000s. Even more unexpectedly, emissions are projected to decline slightly in 2015 with continuation of global economic growth above 3% in Gross Domestic Product.

This is the first two-year period in a multi-decade record where the global economy shows clear signs of decoupling from fossil fuel emissions. In the past, every single break or decline in the growth of carbon emissions was directly correlated with a downturn in the global or regional economy.

This time is different.

However, it is quite unlikely that 2015 is the much-sought-after global peak in emissions which will lead us down the decarbonisation path required to stabilise the climate.

In a separate paper published today in Nature Climate Change, we look in more detail at the possibility of reaching global peak emissions.

Future Earth/Global Carbon Project

What caused it?

The principal cause of this unexpected lack of growth in emissions is the slowdown in the production and consumption of coal-based energy in China in 2014, followed by a decline in 2015.

This has taken China’s emissions growth from close to double digits during the past decade to an extraordinary low of 1.2% growth in 2014 and an unexpected decline by about 4% projected for 2015.

Although China is only responsible for 27% of global emissions, it has dominated the growth in global emissions since early 2000s. Therefore, a slowdown in China’s emissions has an immediate global impact.

Further adding to this main cause, emissions from industrialised economies, including Australia, Europe and the United States, have declined by 1.3% per year on average over the past decade, partially supported by extraordinary growth of renewable energy sources.

In the past every time emissions have fallen has been associated with economic recession.
CSIRO/Global Carbon Project

Have we reached global peak emissions?

Most likely not. One key uncertainty in answering this question is the future of coal in China. But China is pushing to achieve peak carbon consumption as early as possible (and emissions by 2030), and to phase out the dirtiest types of coal from the nation’s energy mix, largely in response to a pollution crisis affecting many of its large urban areas. It is well within the possibilities that growth in coal emissions in China will not resume any time soon, and certainly not at the fast pace of the previous decade.

A strong basis for this assessment is the remarkable growth in non-fossil fuel energy sources such as hydro, nuclear and renewables. These accounted for more than half of the growth in new energy in 2014, with a very similar mix during the first three-quarters of this year. Such structural changes, if continued, could bring China’s peak emissions much earlier than anyone is anticipating and certainly well before 2030.

Although it is unlikely that we have reached global peak emissions, it is very likely that 2015 marks a new era of slower growth in fossil fuel emissions. This is perhaps the first sign of a looming peak on a not-too-distant horizon.

Where from here?

Recent modelling analyses of post-2020 pledges by over 180 countries to reduce emissions to 2030 (the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) show that peak emissions is not to come any time soon. Under the pledges made, global emissions continue to rise to 2030.

This might well be the future. But models used for such analysis were not that different from those that completely missed the very rapid rise of the Chinese economy in the decade of 2000 and perhaps now its rapid decarbonisation.

However, China is not alone in this game. Industrialised countries plus China, accounting for half of global fossil fuel emissions, have pledged to reduce or stabilise emissions absolutely by 2030.

But the other half belongs to less-developed nations whose pledges do not include absolute emission reductions but departures from business-as-usual scenarios (meaning emissions can increase, but not as fast). This emphasises the disproportionate importance of international climate finances required to help that “other” half of the emissions to peak and join the decline of the rest.

2015 has been an extraordinary year, and not just because of China. Emissions from Australia, Europe, Japan and Russia have all come down as part of longer or more recent trends. Installed wind capacity reached 51 gigawatts in 2014, an amount greater than the total global wind capacity just a decade ago. Solar capacity is 50 times bigger than it was ten years ago.

And emissions from land-use change, albeit with large uncertainties and high emissions from Indonesian fires this year, have been on a declining trend for over a decade. These trends are not stopping here.

Yet the current emissions path is not consistent with stabilising the climate at a level below 2℃ global warming.

If we maintain the level of 2015 emissions, the remaining carbon budget before setting the earth on a path that exceeds 2℃ is less than 30 years away, unless we bet on unproven negative emissions technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere later in the century.

But 2015 is a historic year to galvanise further action. The trends in emissions are favourable, and countries have the opportunity to negotiate significantly higher levels of ambition to decouple economic growth from emissions.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of Global Carbon Project, CSIRO

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