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Hidden gem in Paris deal condemns coal to early demise

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When France foreign minister Laurent Fabius brought the gavel down on Saturday night and declared the Paris Agreement on climate change action was sealed, the reaction was almost immediate.

Within the conference hall it was greeted with cheers, hugging and great emotion. Outside, the agreement to cap temperature rises “well below 2°C” and as low as 1.5°C signalled a remarkable achievement that had one major implication: the end of the fossil fuel era is nigh.

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The coal industry will, no doubt, try to comfort itself by saying that the agreement is loosely enough worded to give them some slack. One part of the agreement suggests, for instance, that the world should seek a peak in emissions “as soon as possible”. The head of the Minerals Council of Australia described the deal as “good news for coal.”

The Australian government may also be assuming that there will be business as usual. That could be one interpretation of the Coalition’s remarks immediately after the passage of the deal, when foreign minister Julie Bishop said it was a matter of balancing “economy and the environment”. It is hard to imagine any other national minister, apart from maybe the Saudis, who would use such language in Paris.

But if that is what the fossil fuel industry and the Coalition government are really thinking, then the evidence suggests that they are kidding themselves.

One little gem, alerted to me by the Potsdam Institute’s Malter Meinshausen (on the dance floor of the COP after party of all places) puts the agreement in a new perspective.

It is this paragraph, article 17, in the decisions text of the deal:

17. Notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2 ̊C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 gigatonnes in 2030, and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ̊C above pre-industrial levels by reducing emissions to 40 gigatonnes or to 1.5 ̊C above pre-industrial levels by reducing to a level to be identified in the special report referred to in paragraph 21 below;

OK, now for a quick translation.

The world currently emits around 50 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Even if all the pledges put together by 186 nations before and during the Paris climate talks were enacted, these emissions would grow to around 55 gigatonnes of GHG emissions a year by 2030.

But to meet the 2°C target, the world will need to reduce those emissions to 40 gigatonnes a year. And to reach that level, they are likely going to have to reverse direction before 2020.

What’s more, if the world does move to that aspirational goal of capping temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, then it is going to have to move a lot faster, and a lot more dramatically than that. That trajectory will be outlined by a new IPCC report due in 2018.

The Australia-German Climate and Energy College, of which Meinshausen is a member, published an analysis of what the Paris deal translates to in terms of energy and other emissions.

The analysis suggest that to get to that, a full decarbonisation of the electricity sector must occur by 2050. And even quicker if the world is aiming for “well below 2°C” as agreed in Paris, or the aspirational “1.5°C” goal.

paris analysis

The researchers note that achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” – as the text describes – puts the onus on reducing levels of CO2 first.



That’s because it is hard to imagine “negative” methane or nitrous oxide emissions, so the emphasis will be on achieving net zero CO2 emissions. Hence the focus on the energy and industrial sectors, and in a much shorter timeframe that than imagined by this year’s G7 meeting, which pointed to a timeline of around 2100.

Kobad Bhavnagri, the head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Australia, said that the Paris deal, although imperfect and falling short of a mandate to stop fossil fuel use, “naturally implies that global usage of coal will need to be curbed if the stated ambitions are to be met.”

He said Australia would need to deepen its current pledge of 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 towards the 45-65 per cent range recommended by the Climate Change Authority.

 This would require more renewable energy than currently envisaged, and an extension of the current renewable energy target to a 2030 target, as well as a specific policy aimed to retire coal-fired generators (around 75 per cent of the country’s coal-fired generators are running beyond their original closure dates), and regulations or pricing of carbon emissions.

  

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  • david_fta

    Perhaps Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop are well aware that, long after the party in Paris is over and all the clowns have gone home, they’ll be needing to retain the confidence of a Party room that includes the likes of Dennis Jensen.

  • Steve Fuller

    When the LNP deniers and coal lobbyists review the agreement they’ll be hell bent on twisting logic and meaning inside out. We’ll all need to be on board to call out the mendacity especially if Turnbull turns on the bullshit.

  • Ken Dyer

    We only need to know one statistic – 118 million tonnes of coal
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-03/the-world-has-118-million-metric-tons-of-coal-it-doesn-t-need
    And it ain’t going to get any better regardless of what we are told.

  • RobSa

    Anyone defending the expansion of fossil-fuel use should now be instantly dismissed without question. Anyone voluntarily using fossil fuels for extravagant use needs to be reprimanded. There are no more excuses which are acceptable. Its time to decarbonise and move forward.

    • Ray Miller

      How can the coal lobby groups which is funded by publicly listed companies not be bound by all the rules and disclosure obligations? If the any group comes out with clearly false and misleading statements attempting to lift or maintain member company share price, the individuals and organizations should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
      Activities of any industry who step outside of ‘just’ promotion as opposed to false and misleading statements aimed directly at share price if not illegal should be.

  • David

    What an amazing achievement by the UNFCCC. The first time humanity has reached a universal agreement, on anything. It is a monumental step forward for the human condition. Before now universal agreement was only reached at the end of a gun. thuis is precisely what the UN was established to do and they should be commended today.
    On Australia… Our ERF is designed to achieve abatement in the ‘removals by sinks’ side of the equation only. We will become a case study for the UN in how the removal of emissions trading arrangements to protect the carbon intensive business model of source emitters and the attempt to deliver the INDC purely from ‘removals by sinks’ results in abject failure and the waste of all taxpayer funds spent on the program.
    In reality, in 2030 this will look like millions of hectares of agricultural land unavailable to generate revenue for 100 years. A taxpayer funded hog tie for our agricultural sector just to protect fossil fired electricity. Emissions will rise unchecked with over 80% of our electricity still coming from coal and gas. As our exports become subject to chinese import tariffs for carbon intensity we will finally realise we chose the wrong team, Any attempt to change at that point will cost 5 times what it does today. We will likely have to resort to the removal of the ERF funded forests in an attempt to allow the agricultural industry to provide revenue which should have been provided by the electricity sector through the ETS 15 years earlier.
    The only chance to avoid this outcome is to doggedly increase the RET. Thank ‘god’ it is still in place.

  • michael

    “…when foreign minister Julie Bishop said it was a matter of balancing “economy and the environment”. It is hard to imagine any other national minister, apart from maybe the Saudis, who would use such language in Paris….” Or the Chinese, or the Indians, or Everyone
    to quote one relevant comment;

    “China will take international obligations commensurate with its own national condition, development stage and actual capacity,” the special representative said.


    but don’t let that get in the way of a jab at the Australians!

  • Math Geurts

    “most of the coal mined in Australia is exported, mostly to eastern Asia. In fiscal year 2013/14, 430.9 million tonnes of coal were mined, and 375.1 million tonnes were exported”

  • Ray Miller

    Thanks Giles, you are a real gem appreciate all the information you are providing.
    I agree with your article which means that Australia should immediately implement a range of tweaks which are in the pipe line. The only ‘plan’ on the table which has any capability is the Greens energy policy.

    Interesting comments by Minster Bishop about balancing “economy and the environment” shows gross incompetence, the economy is “dead man walking” unless urgent, immediate and real action to restructure the world energy system and our part which is what has been agreed to have any chance of saving it.

  • Robert Comerford

    I would not get too excited. For a start the yanks had no representative there who could give a legally binding agreement. As far as I know their constitution forbids it, it needs to be ratified by congress.The Chinese might do some good things but India basically said they would be hell bent on coal use still.
    Mention carbon pricing in Australia and see how many votes you pull.
    I would like to be proved wrong however.

    • michael

      shhhh, it was a fabulous deal, didn’t you read all the pre-prepared articles?

    • Calamity_Jean

      “As far as I know their constitution forbids it, it needs to be ratified by congress.”

      I’m a US citizen, so I can tell you that you’re right. A binding agreement would have to be ratified by Congress. That won’t happen unless and until Congress is dominated by Democrats. The Paris agreement is probably the best one that could be completed given political reality here in the US.

  • The RET has stood the test of time and works well when not subject to the vagaries of the government of the day. What we need is legislation that ensures the RET stays in place and with long term horizons. This needs to be at least a 10 year rolling target to give some certainty to investors.

  • Terry Headley

    Thirty years ago I did a report on the origins and development of the European Green Movement, with a focus on “Die Grunen” (The Green Party of Germany).
    Very few people know that the green movement was founded by former Nazis as an outgrowth of their “Volkisch” philosophy. They were the world’s first radical greens.
    The movement was funded by the Soviet KGB as a means to destabilize the West during the Cold War.
    And if you read the writings of many of the leaders of the Green Movement today, you will find that not much has changed. If you read the comments below — suggesting the stifling of dissent, of making dissent illegal, is clearly evident that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
    So Seig Heil Karmeraden! (NOT!)

  • Ricardo K

    Good article Giles. I hope someone is sending your stuff to everyone in the parliamentary Coalition. Some piece of information might eventually get through.

    The Paris agreement is showing some interesting spin-off effects.