Paris negotiations are at a critical point: now it's up to the ministers Opinion Article

Dec 07, 2015 - 1:30pm

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 7 December, 2015.

Erwin Jackson                
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

If you have ever given up a really bad habit, you know how hard it can be. Negotiating an agreement that seeks to accelerate the transition from our habitual use of fossil fuels to clean energy right across the world is tough. This is not a surprise, and is reflected in the difficult progress countries made on the new draft global climate change agreement in Paris last week.

As we head into the second week here in Paris, there have been highs and lows.

At the beginning of last week, more than 150 leaders from around the world kicked the summit off on a high. Most sent a very clear message – addressing climate change is central to our ability to maintain the health and prosperity of our citizens and economies. Many, including the United States and China, clearly identified that with action comes opportunity. The message was that we can and must transition to clean energy because it is central to economic growth and security.

Some may dismiss such statements as rhetorical or symbolic. This fails to acknowledge the art of politics in the UN process. This clear message from leaders sets the bar their negotiating teams have to meet. It signals the political direction of travel to the public and investors around the world.

Our Prime Minister, among others, highlighted the need to achieve net zero emissions. The bar against which domestic policies will need to be judged is now the level to which they will help achieve net zero emissions within a handful of decades.

We also saw substance in the leaders' remarks. The US, China, India, Australia and 16 other countries committed to double investment over the next five years into the research and development of clean energy. India launched an international solar alliance of more than 120 countries. The alliance aims to bring government, industry and research institutions together to rapidly increase investment in solar power generation. The African Union and African Development Bank jointly pledged to double the entire continent's energy generation capacity, using only renewables.

Even if these announcements were only implemented in part, they will have real economic impact. Global power sector investments in clean energy already outstrip investments in fossil fuels, and implementing these commitments will only boost that further. However, in Australia, innovation investments will remain empty symbolism for decades if there is no modernisation plan to replace existing coal fired stations with clean energy.

After the fanfare of the leaders' statements, officials got down to work and we quickly came back down to earth. Traditional tensions emerged, particularly around how to scale up financial support for vulnerable and poor nations. Tensions have been exacerbated by the regressive role Saudi Arabia, in particular, had been playing. The petro state knows that its economy, based on the development of oil, is not well positioned for a world in which investment in clean energy far outstrips investment in fossil fuels. Like a wounded bull, it is attempting to damage progress that would facilitate greater action around the world.

Now, the question is, are we on the way back up? We entered the Paris meeting with a draft agreement that was more than 50 pages long. The new draft to be considered by ministers next week is now just over 20.

The new draft agreement includes the ingredients of an effective outcome in Paris that can further boost global action. Options exist to update targets every five years towards the agreed global warming goal of less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The draft sets out a collective system aimed at ensuring that the actions countries take are not only transparent, but that they support the world's most vulnerable nations so they can participate in climate-change solutions.

An agreement that includes these elements can reinforce the signal to communities, investors and businesses around the world that action to limit pollution and shift to clean energy is an unstoppable force. This can be achieved, but it is going to require strong political leadership from ministers when they arrive this week.

So, as the negotiations gear up for the engagement of ministers, including Australia's foreign minister, most of the elements needed to continue to ramp up global action are in the draft agreement. Momentum in the real economy continues to grow. It is now up to ministers to find the compromises to ensure Paris accelerates the transition to a net-zero emissions, climate neutral, global economy.

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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