Durban climate talk’s real progress should lead to smarter action Opinion Article

Dec 12, 2011 - 8:00am

This was originally published in ABC The Drum.

By John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute

The successful conclusion of Durban’s UN climate convention should draw to a close not just those negotiations but also phony debates here in Australia about a lack of international action, laying to rest once and for all a persistent argument against acting on climate change.

Durban represented real progress in climate negotiations for three reasons.

First, all countries have agreed to negotiate by 2015 a single, legally binding global agreement that will cover all major carbon pollution emitters including, most importantly, China and the United States. It’s a big step. Never before have all major emitters agreed to have pollution commitments captured by a single, legally enforceable agreement.

This removes a massive stumbling block in climate negotiations which had nations like the US and, for a while, Australia, refusing to sign up to legally binding commitments because other major polluters like China and India weren’t subject to similar legal consequences.

It’s been a lame but pivotal excuse. Why act according to different obligations if every country isn’t similarly covered? There’d be no global trade whatsoever if you applied the same argument, but that hasn’t stopped the use of that excuse. Thankfully, now gone.

Secondly, countries have agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund and a work plan to unlock billions of dollars of additional investment for clean energy and adaptation in the world’s poorest nations.

While cumbersome and difficult to achieve, at the end of the day bedding down effective global solutions requires mulit-lateral institutional architecture.

As such, making good on commitments to help the most vulnerable countries, many in our Asia Pacific region, is not only a smart investment in sustainable regional economic growth but also critical to progress on climate action.

Finally, the Durban agreement recognises “with grave concern” that existing commitments to cut pollution are not enough to hold increases in global temperature below the 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels that all countries have agreed is the common objective.

Existing action and commitments are inadequate because, as UN experts reported during the talks, the likely result will be global warming of three to four degrees. This would still lead to catastrophic and potentially irreversible consequences. (NB. taking no action under a business-as-usual scenario would likely deliver seven degrees of warming.) 
With this prospect in mind, the Durban agreement states countries “shall raise the level of ambition” and build on existing actions.

The commitments and actions already in place in many countries are being driven by economic self interest and not just by climate concerns. Clearing up local air pollution, creating energy independence and grasping commercial opportunities in the emerging global clean energy economy are proving powerful incentives and can only continue to gather pace under a global agreement.

Carbon prices and emissions trading schemes already legislated cover around 567 million people. With California and seven Chinese regions starting emissions trading schemes, around 900 million people may be covered by 2015.

As negotiators finalised the deal in Durban, clean energy recorded its trillionth dollar of investment since Bloomberg records started in 2004. Annual investments in renewable energy now compete with fossil fuel energy sources.

These investments and actions make a mockery of claims that Australia is somehow at risk of leading the world.

The inevitability of a global legal agreement should also put an end to any expectation that reducing Australia’s emissions by a modest 5 per cent is a viable 2020 target for Australia.

Under both the Government’s conditions, lodged with the UN, and the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, the 5 per cent figure is contingent on inaction elsewhere.

Professor Ross Garnaut, the ANU and The Climate Institute argue Australia’s 2020 target should be between 10 and 15 per cent, based on a reasonable assessment of current global action.

A target of at least 25 per cent, which both parties have in their range, is considered our fair share towards a 50/50 chance of achieving the commonly agreed two degree temperature limit.

Under the Clean Energy Future legislation, crunch time on that target will come in 2014 when the independent Climate Change Authority, chaired by Bernie Fraser, makes its recommendations.

For the Gillard Government, maintaining climate credibility here and abroad means strengthening the new policies and keeping open the possibility of a 25 per cent target, at least.

For the Coalition, Durban has opened the door to a dignified departure from the blood oath to remove the carbon pricing legislation. The Direct Action policy cannot achieve Australia’s 5-25 per cent international targets  without billions of dollars of extra cost on the Australian economy.

The Durban Climate Convention has delivered real progress that should not only lead to stronger ambition and action but also a much smarter debate here at home, at least.  Should.

John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. 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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