President Donald Trump is keeping some of his promises. Late last month he signed an executive order that tore up Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Some commentators see this as putting the world on “the road to climate catastrophe”, while others have described it as an effort at “killing the international order”.
Here in Australia, in response to Trump’s order, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, chair of the government’s Environment Committee, took predictable aim at Australia’s international climate commitments, labelling the 2015 Paris Agreement “cactus”.
So is the Paris deal really “cactus”? What would we have lost if so? And does it matter?
What was agreed in Paris?
Opinion was divided on the reasons for the failure of the Copenhagen summit, but the then prime minister Kevin Rudd didn’t mince words in blaming the Chinese, infamously accusing them during the negotiations of trying to “rat-fuck us”. (For what it is worth, the British climate writer Mark Lynas agreed, albeit in less incendiary tones.)
A series of fence-mending meetings and careful smoothing of frayed nerves and wounded egos followed over the next five years. The French took charge and, with the price of renewable energy generation plummeting (and so making emissions reductions at least theoretically “affordable”), a deal was struck at the Paris summit in December 2015.
The agreement, notably silent on fossil fuels, calls on nations to take actions to reduce their emissions so that temperatures can be held to less than 2℃ above the pre-industrial average. This limit, which is not actually “safe”, will require a herculean effort and luck. If you add up all the national commitments, they will most likely take us to roughly 3℃ or beyond.
Eminent climate scientist James Hansen labelled Paris a fraud, while Clive Spash (the economist monstered by Labor in 2009 for pointing out that Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was not much cop) thought it was worthless.
British climatologist Kevin Anderson is similarly dubious, arguing that the agreement assumes we will invent technologies that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in, well, industrial quantities in the second half of this century.
So why the relative optimism among the climate commentariat? They’re desperate for a win after so many defeats, which stretch back all the way to the Kyoto climate conference of 1997.
Second time as farce?
Although Australia was an early ratifier of the treaty that emerged from the Rio summit, it nevertheless went to the first annual UN climate talks (chaired by a young Angela Merkel) determined to get a good deal for itself, as a country reliant on coal for electricity generation and eyeing big bucks from coal exports.
That meeting resulted in the “Berlin Mandate”, which called on developed nations to cut emissions first. Australia, gritting its teeth, agreed. Later that year the Keating Government released economic modelling (paid for in part by fossil fuel interests) which predicted economic Armageddon for Australia if a uniform emissions-reduction target was applied. This work was picked up by the new Howard government.
After much special pleading and swift footwork, Australia got two very sweet deals at Kyoto in 1997. First, its “reduction” target was 108% of 1990 levels within the 2008-12 period (the then environment minister Robert Hill reportedly refused to push for Howard’s preferred 118%).
Second, Australia successfully lobbied for a clause in the Kyoto treaty allowing reductions in land clearing to count as emissions reductions. This meant that Australia could bank benefits for things that were happening for entirely different reasons.
Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in April 1998, but in September of the same year the cabinet decided not to ratify the deal unless the United States did. In March 2001 President George W. Bush pulled out, and Howard followed suit on World Environment Day in 2002.
Kyoto ratification then became a symbol of green virtue out of all proportion with its actual impact. Rudd got enormous kudos for ratifying it as his first official act as Prime Minister. And then reality set in again when he tried to actually implement an emissions-reduction policy.
Why does it matter?
Reality keeps on impinging. In a beautifully written piece in the New York Times, Ariel Dorfman lists disasters befalling Chile (readers in Queensland will feel like they know what he is on about). He concludes:
As we get ready to return to the United States, our friends and relatives ask, over and over, can it be true? Can President Trump be beset with such suicidal stupidity as to deny climate change and install an enemy of the earth as his environmental czar? Can he be so beholden to the blind greed of the mineral extraction industry, so ignorant of science, so monumentally arrogant, not to realize that he is inviting apocalypse? Can it be, they ask. The answer, alas, is yes.
Will the opinions of politicians like Donald Trump and Craig Kelly matter at all as long as the price of renewables keeps dropping? Well, possibly. “Shots across the bow” of renewables policy have in the past made investors nervous.
As Alan Pears on this website, and Giles Parkinson at Reneweconomy have explained, investors in electricity generation got spooked by the policy uncertainty caused by former prime minister Tony Abbott’s hostility to the Renewable Energy Target. That’s the real (and presumably intended) effect of statements like Kelly’s.
Will it work? Optimists will point to last week’s announcement that a $1bn solar farm will be built in South Australia, regardless of the concatenating Canberra catastrophe. Perennial pessimists will point to the Keeling Curve, which shows a remorseless and escalating rise in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Time and prevailing politics are certainly not on our side.