Environmental news, as a rule, doesn’t deal in triumphs. So the sight of leaders holding their arms aloft in celebration after clinching the historic Paris climate agreement will stand as a defining image of 2015 – a moment of cartharsis after more than two decades of infuriatingly sluggish climate diplomacy.
After two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations (and years of work beforehand), the Paris climate summit has delivered the first binding treaty under which all nations, rich and poor, will join the bid to limit global warming to “well under 2℃”, and possibly no more than 1.5℃.
The climate hasn’t been saved yet, despite vulnerable nations' impressive success in lobbying for the 1.5℃ target to be included in the agreement. The emissions pledges made so far will fall well short of the goal, and will need significant strengthening under the review process enshrined in the agreement.
Nevertheless, getting all 196 parties to sign the deal was a diplomatic coup, six years after the disappointment and acrimony of the Copenhagen talks.
Midway through the conference we learned that global greenhouse emissions maybe, just maybe, have already peaked, but peaking is not enough – the agreement calls for the world to become effectively carbon-neutral by the second half of the century. The near-certainty that 2015 will be the hottest year on record is a reminder that global warming is well underway. Time and carbon budgets are tight.
Targets and auctions
The buildup to the climate summit dominated the agenda all year, in Australia and abroad. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, unveiled plans for a national emissions trading scheme, while Pope Francis made an influential call to action on the environment.
Earlier in the year it held its first reverse auction for the Emissions Reduction Fund, which will use public money to invest in emissions-reducing projects without a carbon tax. Doubts still remain over whether it is fit for purpose.
It was a torrid year for renewable energy, after the government succeeded in scaling back the Renewable Energy Target and told the Clean Energy Finance Corporation not to invest in wind farms (new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now reversed that move).
Coal, on the other hand, was still in favour. After hitting a legal roadblock over skinks and snakes (but not greenhouse emissions), Indian firm Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland has now been re-approved. Not only that, but Attorney General George Brandis struck back at the “radical activists” who opposed the approval, announcing plans to restrict green groups from waging similar “lawfare” in the future.
One of the reasons green groups oppose the Carmichael mine is the fact that the coal will be shipped across the Great Barrier Reef. Australia faced the prospect of international embarrassment as the UN World Heritage Committee weighed up whether to add the Reef to its official list of world heritage in danger – an ignominy generally reserved for heritage sites in war-torn places like Iraq and the Congo.
In the event Australia was reprieved after persuading the UN that it now has policies in place to safeguard the Reef. Progress will be reviewed in 2019, and as our Reef threats series pointed out, the problems are many and complex.
Into hot water
Elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean, scientists have watched the unfolding El Niño, which officially arrived in May and has steadily gathered in force since. As drought threatens to return to the Murray-Darling Basin, meteorologists are uncomfortably aware that El Niño’s effects on Australia can be harsh, unpredictable, and hot.
Speaking of heat, you wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting in Volkswagen’s boardroom as the news broke about the company’s systematic gaming of vehicle emissions testing, bringing worldwide condemnation. It’s still not clear how widespread the issue will turn out to be, but Australian diesel drivers will face a rough road ahead regardless – 2016 is the year that Australia’s lax vehicle emissions standards will finally be brought into line with much of the rest of the developed world, potentially wiping out much of the financial advantage of driving a diesel.
Of course you could always catch a tram – or at least you might in a few years, if the many light rail projects planned for Australia come to fruition. After two years of roads-only infrastructure policy under Abbott, Turnbull has changed course and will invest in public transport too. Along with the appointment of cities minister Jamie Briggs, it’s a sign that the Canberra government might finally be starting to understand cities, which after all is where most of us live.
One car company whose star was definitely on the rise was Tesla, which branched out from electric sports cars to unveil an affordable power storage battery for use with home solar panels. It has been hailed as a game-changer in the bid to wean households off fossil-fuelled electricity, although it’s still early days in in figuring out how to smooth out the intermittency issues that still beset renewable energy.
The uncertainty over renewables and the growing urgency about getting away from fossil fuels are two reasons why nuclear is still getting attention, even in Australia where the prospect of nuclear power is politically unpalatable.
True, Australia does eventually need somewhere to store its current stockpile of low-level nuclear waste from sources such as medical scans – and to that end the government shortlisted six sites ahead of a decision next year.
But as The Conversation’s series on the future of nuclear around the world showed, other regions are grappling with bigger issues, from arms proliferation to the clean but still technically remote prospect of nuclear fusion power.
New year, new habits
While the politicians grapple with energy policy and emissions targets, what can you do to tread more lightly on the planet in 2016?
You might also spare a thought for Australia’s animals – and on that front there has been some encouraging news amid the usual environmental concerns. While things look grim for many species, like Leadbeater’s possum or orange-bellied parrots, this year conservationists declared victory for Australia’s humpback whale population – more evidence that environmentalism can still conjure up the odd moment of triumph.