Is Paris climate deal really ‘cactus’, and would it matter if it was?


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

President Donald Trump is keeping some of his promises. Late last month he signed an executive order that tore up Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Some commentators see this as putting the world on “the road to climate catastrophe”, while others have described it as an effort at “killing the international order”. The Conversation

Will America lose out? Will China, which has chided Trump for selfishness, be the prime beneficiary as its solar panel industry continues to expand?

Here in Australia, in response to Trump’s order, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, chair of the government’s Environment Committee, took predictable aim at Australia’s international climate commitments, labelling the 2015 Paris Agreement “cactus”.

Kelly is on the record as disputing climate science and poured scorn on the Paris deal when it was struck.
He is certainly not alone among the government’s ranks in this view.

The day after Trump’s election win last November, Australia ratified the Paris deal
and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that it would take four years for Trump to pull out.

So is the Paris deal really “cactus”? What would we have lost if so? And does it matter?

What was agreed in Paris?

The Paris Agreement came after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992) had suffered a body blow at the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen .

Opinion was divided on the reasons for the failure of the Copenhagen summit, but the then prime minister Kevin Rudd didn’t mince words in blaming the Chinese, infamously accusing them during the negotiations of trying to “rat-fuck us”. (For what it is worth, the British climate writer Mark Lynas agreed, albeit in less incendiary tones.)

A series of fence-mending meetings and careful smoothing of frayed nerves and wounded egos followed over the next five years. The French took charge and, with the price of renewable energy generation plummeting (and so making emissions reductions at least theoretically “affordable”), a deal was struck at the Paris summit in December 2015.

The agreement, notably silent on fossil fuels, calls on nations to take actions to reduce their emissions so that temperatures can be held to less than 2℃ above the pre-industrial average. This limit, which is not actually “safe”,
will require a herculean effort and luck. If you add up all the national commitments, they will most likely take us to roughly 3℃ or beyond.

Australia’s commitment of a 26-28% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, was seen as being at the low end of acceptable, and not enough to help meet the 2℃ limit.

Eminent climate scientist James Hansen labelled Paris a fraud, while Clive Spash (the economist monstered by Labor in 2009 for pointing out that Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was not much cop) thought it was worthless.

British climatologist Kevin Anderson is similarly dubious, arguing that the agreement assumes we will invent technologies that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in, well, industrial quantities in the second half of this century.

So why the relative optimism among the climate commentariat? They’re desperate for a win after so many defeats, which stretch back all the way to the Kyoto climate conference of 1997.

Second time as farce?

After Australia’s initial promises to be a “good international citizen”, reality quickly set in during the early years of serious climate diplomacy.

Although Australia was an early ratifier of the treaty that emerged from the Rio summit, it nevertheless went to the first annual UN climate talks (chaired by a young Angela Merkel) determined to get a good deal for itself, as a country reliant on coal for electricity generation and eyeing big bucks from coal exports.

That meeting resulted in the “Berlin Mandate”, which called on developed nations to cut emissions first. Australia, gritting its teeth, agreed. Later that year the Keating Government released economic modelling (paid for in part by fossil fuel interests) which predicted economic Armageddon for Australia if a uniform emissions-reduction target was applied. This work was picked up by the new Howard government.

After much special pleading and swift footwork, Australia got two very sweet deals at Kyoto in 1997. First, its “reduction” target was 108% of 1990 levels within the 2008-12 period (the then environment minister Robert Hill reportedly refused to push for Howard’s preferred 118%).

Second, Australia successfully lobbied for a clause in the Kyoto treaty allowing reductions in land clearing to count as emissions reductions. This meant that Australia could bank benefits for things that were happening for entirely different reasons.

Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in April 1998, but in September of the same year the cabinet decided not to ratify the deal unless the United States did. In March 2001 President George W. Bush pulled out, and Howard followed suit on World Environment Day in 2002.

Kyoto ratification then became a symbol of green virtue out of all proportion with its actual impact. Rudd got enormous kudos for ratifying it as his first official act as Prime Minister. And then reality set in again when he tried to actually implement an emissions-reduction policy.

Why does it matter?

Reality keeps on impinging. In a beautifully written piece in the New York Times, Ariel Dorfman lists disasters befalling Chile (readers in Queensland will feel like they know what he is on about). He concludes:

As we get ready to return to the United States, our friends and relatives ask, over and over, can it be true? Can President Trump be beset with such suicidal stupidity as to deny climate change and install an enemy of the earth as his environmental czar? Can he be so beholden to the blind greed of the mineral extraction industry, so ignorant of science, so monumentally arrogant, not to realize that he is inviting apocalypse? Can it be, they ask. The answer, alas, is yes.

Will the opinions of politicians like Donald Trump and Craig Kelly matter at all as long as the price of renewables keeps dropping? Well, possibly. “Shots across the bow” of renewables policy have in the past made investors nervous.

As Alan Pears on this website, and Giles Parkinson at Reneweconomy
have explained, investors in electricity generation got spooked by the policy uncertainty caused by former prime minister Tony Abbott’s hostility to the Renewable Energy Target. That’s the real (and presumably intended) effect of statements like Kelly’s.

Will it work? Optimists will point to last week’s announcement that a $1bn solar farm will be built in South Australia, regardless of the concatenating Canberra catastrophe. Perennial pessimists will point to the Keeling Curve, which shows a remorseless and escalating rise in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Time and prevailing politics are certainly not on our side.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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

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Australia to ratify the Paris climate deal, under a large Trump-shaped shadow


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Australia’s government has announced that it is to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which was struck 11 months ago and entered into force last Friday.

The move comes despite the election of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese-inspired hoax. Trump has pledged to turn his back on the Paris treaty after he takes office in January, although this would take at least a year and technically leave the Agreement still in force, albeit weakened.

The question for Australia is how Canberra will react to such a seismic shift in US climate policy. The last time a US president pulled the plug on international climate negotiations was in March 2001, when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty. Australia’s prime minister John Howard followed suit on Earth Day 2002.

The temptation for Australia’s current government would be to follow in Trump’s slipstream in much the same way. Despite its 2030 climate target being widely seen as unambitious, Australia still lacks a credible plan to deliver the necessary emissions cuts, and has no renewable energy target beyond 2020.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may be a vocal supporter of climate action, not everyone on on his side of politics is as keen – such as MPs Craig Kelly and George Christensen. (It was not always thus under the Liberals.)

The temptation to defect might be strong, but the countervailing pressure will be much stronger that it was in 2002, and the clean energy transition is already underway. Just this week, a high-powered group of business leaders, energy providers, academics and financiers called on Turnbull to expand the renewable energy target and create a market mechanism to phase out coal.

Yet the US election has also reinvigorated Australian opponents of climate action, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, who were cracking champagne at the prospect of Trump in the White House, and media commentator Andrew Bolt, who jubilantly described Trump’s victory as a “revolt against the left’s arrogance”.

Which bit of history will repeat?

On balance, then, it is still hard to predict Australia’s next move – and past form is little guide for future performance.

Over the past 26 years, Australia has made two largely symbolic commitments to international climate action, and one very concrete refusal.

In 1990, ahead of the 2nd World Climate Conference which fired the starting gun for the United Nations’ climate negotiations, the Hawke government announced a target of a 20% reduction by 2005.

The pledge, however, was laced with crucial caveats, like this one:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This target was sidelined in the final United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Australia signed and ratified in 1992.

In 1997, Australia got a very sweet deal at the Kyoto climate talks, successfully negotiating an 8% increase in greenhouse gases as its emissions “reduction” target, as well as a special loophole that allowed it take account of its large reduction in land clearing since 1990. Australia signed the deal in April 1998, but never ratified it.

Kyoto’s rules hid a multitude of sins, anyway, as Oxford University’s Nicholas Howarth and Andrew Foxall have pointed out:

…its accounting rules obscure the real level of carbon emissions and structural trends at the nation-state level… it has shifted focus away from Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter towards China, its primary customer.

Although Kevin Rudd famously ratified Kyoto and received a standing ovation at the Bali Climate summit in 2007, a stronger Australian emissions reduction target was not forthcoming.

The next big moment came at the Paris negotiations of 2015. Australia’s official pledge was a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 – a target unveiled by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, and which met with a lukewarm response from analysts.

Since then, pressure has been building for Australia to explain how it can meet even that target, given the hostility to renewable energy among the federal government, the lack of a post-2020 renewables target, and the inadequacy of the current Direct Action policy.

And now we are looking at the prospect of a Trump presidency, already described as “a turning point in the history of climate action” and “the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees”.

In a chaotic world that has confounded pollsters, it seems foolish to bet on anything. But two predictions seem sure: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will rise, and the future will be … interesting.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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