Day 1, Paris climate talks: helping dirty power get clean Opinion Article

Dec 01, 2015 - 1:00pm

This article first appeared in Crikey on 1 December, 2015.

Erwin Jackson                
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

Day one of the Paris climate talks has concluded with Australia confirming one commitment and making two surprise pledges. There’s been no time to feel jetlagged.

What does this all add up to? Some steps forward, but still not the strides needed to achieve the goals — which are rapidly becoming mainstream and which the Prime Minister has recognised — of avoiding 2 degrees warming by reducing emissions to net zero levels.

Let’s start with the good bits. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Australia would ratify the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Ratifying a treaty we have already signed might not sound like a major step forward. But given that Australia let nine years lapse between signing and ratifying the first period of Kyoto, this is a signal to the rest of the world that Australia is taking its international commitments more seriously. Interestingly, within the Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol is Australia’s full 2020 target range — not just the 5% cut that the government talks about, but the commitment to raise the target, potentially to 15% or 25%, depending on conditions of global action that the Climate Change Authority says have been met.

Turnbull also announced a doubling of funding for clean energy research and development by 2020, as part of the 20-nation Mission Innovation pledge. This is accompanied by the Breakthrough Energy Coalition of 28 investors — including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — that will back companies in the 20 countries to get clean energy technologies “out of the lab and into the market”.

Of course, deploying new technologies requires a supportive and stable investment environment, features that are absent from Australia’s power sector, thanks to the slashing of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and the removal of a price that would end the ability of coal- and gas-fired generators to pollute for free. We have no exit program for old coal stations, and, beyond the reduced RET, no on-ramp for clean energy.

Turnbull also pledged $1 billion by 2020 to help poor and vulnerable countries access clean energy and protect themselves from the physical impacts of climate change (“climate finance”). It is encouraging the government recognises the need for this support, but this is less impressive than it might sound. A $200 million annually merely returns nominal funding to the levels provided between 2010 and 2013. There’s no sign of any scale-up strategy here. Canada, by contrast, has scaled up its commitment to $2.5 billion.

Finally, Australia was reportedly going to sign up to the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communique endorsed by 30 other countries, including Canada, the United States and New Zealand. But reports suggest it pulled out at the last minute. Previously, Australia has supported G20 statements for reform of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, while defining subsidies to exclude any Australian policies such as the diesel fuel rebate.

That might not wash any longer. As the fossil fuel subsidy communique notes: “The International Monetary Fund views that fossil fuel prices should reflect not only supply costs but also environmental impacts like climate change and the health costs of local air pollution.”

The Climate Institute has calculated that the polluting parts of the energy sector benefit from an annual carbon subsidy of $14 billion to $39 billion. The total carbon subsidy to electricity between now and 2030 would reach $165 billion to $500 billion.

So day one is a wrap: Australia has taken some steps forward, but recognising the need for net zero emissions means we need to be looking to modernise and clean up our economy. That requires more policy substance than is on offer yet.

Erwin Jackson

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 Australia.
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