Australian action on climate change? Fuhgeddaboudit Opinion Article

Sep 24, 2014 - 2:04pm

This article first appeared in Crikey on 24 September. 

John Connor  
CEO, The Climate Institute

 

By any measure over the last few days New York has put on a spectacular show as the UN Climate Summit draws to an end. There are a large number of performances still to review, but it is clear that an important boost has been given to international climate action and to low-carbon economic opportunities. But Australia’s contribution was disappointing.

On Sunday, the vast climate march filled New York’s streets with colour and its cabbies with ire. That all that colour and motion was ignored by the Fox and other TV news with their hold on America’s hinterland can’t be ignored, but the march’s energy was felt in many other ways.

On Monday, remaining protesters “flooded” Wall Street, and a polar bear was among those detained by the constabulary.

Star CEOs emerged backing action. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook and the head of IKEA joined Unilever’s Paul Polman and Richard Branson among an emerging “We Mean Business” group of multinational corporations and businesses. They not only backed low-carbon investments, carbon pricing and decarbonisation, but also presented data from over 10,000 companies showing positive returns on low-carbon investments.

Monday also brought the launch of the carbon pricing leaders’ “coalition of the working”, which included countries with over 50% of global emissions and GDP backing carbon pricing as a key tool for climate action. In stark contrast to the view of some in the Australian government, many of these are in the process of implementing and considering such schemes, rather than turning away from carbon pricing. We still have the world record as the only country to do that.

The summit itself got underway after more stars were overpowered by the simple passionate poetry of a mother from the Marshall Islands and her plea to let all climate impacted communities thrive, not just survive. The summit was a super-ambitious agenda of showcasing more than 120 world leaders and almost 40 senior leaders, like Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Investors, regional governments and cities also had one of the many stages in what was a sort of Big Day Out.

The day has ended with a strong consensus supporting what Bishop described as a global and enduring agreement in Paris at the end of 2015. Many reaffirmed the international agreed goal of avoiding 2 degrees in warming, and there is a clear trend emerging recognising that this requires complete decarbonisation of the global economy.

Many countries indicated they would be honouring the agreement from Warsaw last year in putting forward by April next year their more medium-term commitments for the future beyond 2020. These included the European Union, the United States and even China. Importantly, China indicated an intention to move from an intensity target to a net emissions target to allow its emissions to peak “as early as possible”. This will be a keenly awaited number next year. US President Barack Obama didn’t disappoint those who love his rhetoric, with an opening that it was climate change, much more than terrorism and instability, that would “define the contours of this century”.

There were important commitments, alliances and architecture announced across the range of sectors that will be crucial in decarbonising the global economy, spanning across energy, infrastructure, finance, transportation, cities, agriculture and forests.

Finally, a central issue underpinning equitable and successful global action is known as climate finance. This is providing public and private finance to help poorer developing countries clean up their growth and adapt to very real and emerging climate impacts. Developed countries have made big promises in this area of enabling $100 billion a year by 2020. There was some, but not much action here. France joined Germany in pledging a billion each, and a range of countries made fresh commitments, including to their credit Korea and Mexico.

And Australia? A disappointing performance.

The best that can be said was that the government supported an agreement to help phase out super greenhouse gas HFCs and agreed to an Asia Pacific Rainforest Summit in early November. There were no new financial commitments, but there was a remarkable reminder for all of Australia’s good performance from 2010 to 2013. That this government is mentioning climate resilience in its aid program is a good thing, even in its much slashed form, but it’s no excuse for its investment inadequacy.

There was a curious supporting reference to “baseload energy with no environmental impacts”, which apparently is to come from “technological advances”. And finally, the Australian government again tried to talk up the minimum 2020 target of 5% reductions below 2000 levels. Not mentioned was that this was based on the precondition of no global action and that commitments of up to 25%, dependent on global action, remain in international agreements as Australian commitments.

Australia was not alone in disappointing efforts, and the totality is still much short of what is needed if extreme climate disruption is to be avoided. However, a much-needed and important boost was given. Here’s hoping the New York can-do attitude can carry forward to coming months and years.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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