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”.
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”.
So is the Paris deal really “cactus”? What would we have lost if so? And does it matter?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 Paris climate agreement set a “safe” global warming limit of below 2℃, aiming below 1.5℃ by 2100. The world has already warmed about a degree since the Industrial Revolution, and on our current emissions trajectory we will likely breach these limits within decades.
However, we could still come back from the brink with a massive effort.
But let’s take a closer look at that warming limit. If we accept that 1.5-2℃ of warming marks the danger threshold, then this is true whether it applies tomorrow, in 2100, or some time thereafter. What we need is to stay below these limits for all time.
Put it this way: we wouldn’t be satisfied if the brakes on a new car only worked on the day of purchase, or for two weeks after that – we expect them to keep us safe throughout the car’s lifetime.
The trouble is, limiting warming to well below 2℃ forever is a much harder job.
Whatever warming we manage to prevent this century, the world will continue to respond to climate change after 2100.
Looking beyond 2100 is often considered irrelevant, given that electoral timescales only operate over several years, and individual development projects over several decades.
However, it is highly relevant to major infrastructure developments, such as overall city planning. Throughout Europe and Asia, the foundations of most city infrastructure date back centuries, or even millennia. Not incidentally, so do most of the supporting agricultural and fisheries traditions and transport routes.
Even the more recent developments in the Americas, Africa and Australia have fundamental roots that date back hundreds of years. Clearly, we need to think beyond the current century when we think about climate change and its impact on civilisation.
The climate system is made up of many different components. Some of these respond rapidly to changes, others over much longer timescales.
The components that respond rapidly to the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions include changes in cloud, snow and sea-ice cover, in dust content of the atmosphere, land-surface changes, and so on. Some work almost instantaneously, others over decades. Together these are known as the “transient” response.
Slow-responding components in the climate system include ocean warming, continental ice-sheets and exchanges of carbon between lifeforms, oceans, the sea floor, soils and the atmosphere. These work over many centuries and are known as the “equilibrium” response.
Large amounts of energy are needed to warm up such a large volume of water as the global ocean. The ocean has taken up more than 90% of all the extra heat caused by greenhouse gases emitted since the Industrial Revolution, especially into the upper few hundred metres.
However, the ocean is so vast that it will continue to warm from the top down over many centuries to millennia, until its energy uptake has adjusted to Earth’s new energy balance. This will continue even if no further emissions are made.
Ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland respond to climate change like an accelerating heavy freight train: slow to start, and virtually unstoppable once they get going. Climate change has been building up since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, but only in recent decades have we started to see marked mass-loss increases from the ice sheets.
The ice-sheet freight train has at last come up to speed and now it will keep on rolling and rolling, regardless of what immediate actions we take regarding our emissions.
Carbon dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million (ppm). To find out what this means for the coming centuries, we have to look between 3 million and 3.5 million years into the past.
Temperature reconstructions suggest the world was 2-3℃ warmer than before the Industrial Revolution, which is similar to the expected equilibrium response for the future.
Geological data from the last 65 million years indicate that the climate warms 3-5℃ for every doubling of CO₂ levels.
Before the Industrial Revolution, CO₂ levels were around 280 ppm. Under all but the most optimistic emission scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the first doubling (to 560 ppm) is approached or crossed between the years 2040 and 2070.
While we don’t know exactly how high sea level was 3.5 million years ago, we are confident that it stood at least 10 metres higher than today. Most studies suggest sea-level rise around 1m higher than today by 2100, followed by a relentlessly continued rise by some 2m per century. Even a rise of a metre or more by 2100 is murderously high for global infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
Today, some 600 million people live at elevations within 10m of sea level. The same area generates 10% of the world’s total GDP. It is estimated that a sea-level rise of 2m will displace almost 2.5% of the global population.
Even the more immediate impacts of sea-level rise are enormous. In 136 of the world’s largest port cities, the population exposed to flooding is estimated to increase by more than three times by 2070, due to combined actions of sea-level rise, land subsidence, population growth and urbanisation. The same study estimates a tenfold increase in asset exposure.
The eventual equilibrium (long-term) level of warming is up to twice the transient (short-term) level of warming. In other words, the Paris Agreement’s response of 1.5-2℃ by 2100 will grow over subsequent centuries toward an equilibrium warming of 2.3-4℃, even without any further emissions.
Given that we have already reached 1℃ of warming, if the aim is to avoid dangerous warming beyond 2℃ over the long term, we have to avoid any further warming from now on.
We can’t do this by simply stopping all emissions. This is because there is still some warming to catch up from the slower transient processes. To stop any further warming, we will have to reduce atmospheric CO₂ levels to about 350 ppm. Doing so requires both stopping the almost 3ppm rise per year from new emissions, and implementing carbon capture to pull CO₂ out of the atmosphere.
Global warming would be limited to 1-1.5℃ by 2100, and 2℃ over the long term, and in addition ocean acidification would be kept under control. These are essential for containing the impacts of climate change on global ecosystems.
This is the real urgency of climate change. Fully understanding the challenge can help us get to work.