Apr 22, 2016 - 4:43pm
This article first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter on 22 April, 2016.
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute
From all the way over here in Australia, the adoption of the historic Paris climate change agreement in December might seem a distant memory. But on Friday night Australian time, over 150 countries will gather in New York to sign it in what will be the largest signing ceremony ever undertaken for an international treaty.
You may not grasp it from most of Australia's news media, but it has very real significance for Australia's economy, our environment and indeed, our way of life. So what does it mean for us? And should we all be making more of a fuss about it?
The signing ceremony is the next step in the enforcement of the Paris Agreement. Government leaders and ministers will stand up in front of their international counterparts and sign on the dotted line. In doing so, each country is saying to the international community that it is going to act on the commitments made through the Agreement and implement them domestically.
The fact that representatives from over 150 countries are attending, including the the biggest economies — the US, China, Brazil the EU and India — shows real political buy-in to the Paris outcomes. Representatives of the world's most vulnerable people will be there in force. Countries like the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa, the Maldives, Fiji, Barbados and Saint Lucia will also hand over their formal documents to accept that the treaty is legally binding on their country (formally called ratification; the next legal step after signing).
These are all signals that countries increasingly recognise their national interests align with stronger action to reduce emissions and boost clean energy investment.
Since the Paris Agreement was adopted in December, new global data shows that renewable electricity continues to outstrip fossil fuel investment. Last year, over US$285 billion was invested in renewable energy, with over US$156 billion of this happening in developing countries like China, India and Brazil. Total renewable investment was more than double that in coal or gas-fired generation. The switch to cleaner energy is having an impact. Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency shows that global energy sector emissions have remained flat since 2013.
The contrast back here could not be more stark. Australia played a generally positive role in Paris, and, because of the alphabet, will likely be among the first countries to sign in New York. But when it comes to emissions, we have an ever-growing problem – and our achievements and actions are nowhere near the front of the pack.
Unlike global trends, emissions from our energy sector are on the rise and investments in renewable energy are limping along. The objectives of the Paris Agreement include limiting global warming to 1.5-2°C above 1880 levels. Scientists tells us that achieving this requires energy sector emissions to reach zero by mid-century.
This might sound like a fair way away, but research released by The Climate Institute last week paints a more immediate picture. To meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, we would need to replace all our existing and old coal-burning power plants over the next 20 years to allow our clean energy sector to boom. If we delay, the research reveals we will have set up a situation where, from 2030, more than 80% of our coal-burning power plants will need to be closed in less than five years. The social and economic damage of this rushed and unplanned transition would be felt not only across coal-based communities but our entire economy. It might not even be possible to achieve such a rapid rate of closure.
So the real issue is not what happens in New York this week. The real challenge is that neither of Australia's major political parties have a plan to deliver what we have all effectively committed to – an energy system free of pollution. The stark reality is that the sooner we make a real fuss about this, the better it will be for us all.
Erwin is Deputy CEO of The Climate Institute. With nearly 20 years practical experience in climate change policy
and research, Erwin has developed and led many national and
international programs aimed at reducing greenhouse pollution. This work
has been undertaken in Australia, Europe, North and South America, the
Pacific and Antarctica. He has represented non-governmental groups and
advised government and business in national, regional and international
fora, including being a non-governmental expert reviewer of the reports
of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Erwin has written, researched and produced many
publications on climate change and energy policy including a number of
review papers in scientific journals such as the Medical Journal of