Australia will find itself again on the outer in global climate change efforts, excluded from key decision-making processes because it is one of a minority of major polluters that has yet to ratify the Paris climate accord.
The European Union on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to ratify the Paris treaty, a day after India announced it would also do the same thing. The ratification is expected to be formally voted by ministers later this week, taking the total well past the trigger point of 55 countries and 55 per cent of total global emissions.
The speed of the ratification – less than a year after the Paris treaty was voted to general acclimation last year – compares with the eight years it took to get its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, into force after it was adopted in 1997.
The move will impact Australia in two ways. Firstly, under current arrangements only those countries who have ratified the treaty can vote in negotiations for the next step in the treaty’s implementation. That means Australia would be excluded from these processes, although it may have observer status.
It also means that Australia will reinforce its status as a climate outlier, a reputation it earned when former prime minister Tony Abbott and former Canadian prime minister Steven Harper were branded “climate villains” because of their opposition to action on climate change.
Malcolm Turnbull was expected to change this. but has instead entrenched the policies of his predecessor. New Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, however, has signalled a major change in direction.
This week he mandated a national carbon trading scheme, that will set a carbon price of $C50/tonne by 2022.
“After decades of inaction, after years of missed opportunities, we will finally take real and concrete measures to build a clean economy, create more opportunities for Canadians, and make out world better for our children and grandchildren,” Trudeau told parliament.
“Mr Speaker, we will not walk away from science, and we will not deny the unavoidable.” Canada is expected to formally ratify the Paris deal this week.
The second impact of the Paris treaty ratification is that Australia will face inevitable pressure to increase its emission reduction targets. Already criticised by most analysts as inadequate and below Australia’s “fair share”, the unexpectedly quick ratification of the Paris treaty indicates the world is serious about upping its efforts to combat climate change.
“In our view, climate diplomacy will shift its focus to raising the ambition levels of country pledges as record temperatures and climate impacts highlight the magnitude of the work to be done to limit temperature rises to within 2°C, or even 1.5°C,” HSBC researchers said in a research note this week.
The combined efforts of the pledges that countries brought to Paris are only expected to cap global warming at around 3°C at best, so there is massive work to be done to lower that likely growth in warming to well below 2°C and possibly below 1.5°C.
“Average temperatures for the first half of 2016 were already 1.3°C higher than pre-industrial levels, which is close to the aspirational 1.5°C target,” the HSBC analysts said. “We think ambition levels would need to be raised considerably higher in order for the 1.5°C target not to be missed.”
Australian officials admitted last week that no modelling has been done on whether its current policy suite – based around Direct Action and the Emissions Reduction Fund – will meet even its 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
Independent analyst suggests it won’t. Australia says it has already beaten its first Kyoto target, but that allowed it to increase emissions by 8 per cent, and its 2020 target required virtually no emission reductions at all.
Current estimates suggest that Australia’s emissions are rising again and could be 9 per cent ahead of current levels by 2030.
Leading economist Professor Lord Stern said the treaty progress would provide an enormous boost in confidence for investors, particularly at a time when the world needed to ramp up its efforts to meet the targets.
“A key reason why countries have moved so fast after Paris is that they now recognise the great attractiveness of the growth and development paths for both rich and poor countries that will result from the transition to a low-carbon economy,” he said.
Australia, however, is showing no such ambition. The Coalition is rejecting any talk of increasing its targets in next year’s policy review, and is looking at trying to force states that have higher renewable energy targets to bring them back to the less ambitious national target.
On green finance, Australia is also moving in the opposite direction, voting to cut $500 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and slashing $800 million from the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, the only new initiative announced by the Turnbull government, although it involved only recycled money.
On the international stage, the story is different.
“The race has begun: September has been an extraordinary month for green finance globally,” the HSBC researchers noted, citing new initiatives in China, which is establishing a “green financial system”, and in France and other countries.
“We believe governments are increasingly thinking about how the transition to a low-carbon economy will be funded, and are laying the financial infrastructure to encourage more green capital (especially private) and to develop and scale up new products.
“In the run-up to COP 22 (Marrakech, Morocco from 7-18 November 2016), we expect these initiatives to gain momentum as investors and businesses seek to be a part of, and contribute to, the low-carbon transition.”
But, not in Australia.
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