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Changing climates

Two days in at COP21 – what has Australia pledged?

Entrance to the climate summit at Le Bourget, Paris. David Holmes

The first day of the Paris climate summit was a little different to past summits. For a start, the hosts decided to bring the leaders in as an opener rather than at the end.

At first glance this decision does not make sense. But considering that the approach all along has been to get the 190 participating countries to make their pledges upfront – and even getting a first draft of an agreement nailed down in the first week – the leaders may as well get their press conferences over with.

However, other than simply spelling out what their pledges are – dressed up with the usual enlightenment language of innovation and imagination – there was not a great deal to say. Nevertheless, the mere presence of these leaders was a spectacle to behold.

The security and the media circus that surrounded them are stories in themselves. Sometimes the security arrangements got in the way – a motorcade here and a reschedule there meant that journalists couldn’t get through a cordon of police to hear the leaders of their countries make statements in one of the disused aircraft hangers that is housing everyone.

But there were several clear COP21 initiatives that were declared on day one to take advantage of head-of-state support. The standouts were an “innovation mission”, a “fossil fuel subsidy reform program”, and a project to “invest in resilience for developing countries”.

The innovation mission involving 20 major economies is one that Australia supports. The nations taking part already contribute to 80% of global clean energy research and development (R&D) budgets, which they have pledged to double from US$10 billion to $20 billion over five years. If the R&D money is used in parallel with existing renewables technology, it is a potentially transformational project.

Bill Gates also got up at this announcement – which I attended – along with Barack Obama, Narendra Modi and Francois Hollande, to reveal that 28 large investors from ten countries have joined the coalition of supporters.

Gates said that there were two initiatives being introduced:

… increased government research and private investment are to address climate change and to reduce the cost of energy to reduce poverty. We need to move to sources of energy that the hydrocarbon energy that we use today.

However, at an activist side-event held the next day, Naomi Klein said that while Gates had good intentions, we need to get out of the binary that the climate crisis can only be solved by:

… top-down corporate solutions vs bottom-up justice solutions.

Klein asked:

What about funding of more public transport or for decentralised renewable power?

Klein followed many activists who have rejected the way corporates have to look only to a pioneering discourse that myths are made of, whereby it is only the heroic visions of a few rich people that can save the planet.

However, the Mission Innovation countries are happy for corporates to take on risk for these projects and have released a joint statement detailing their initiative. The group includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the UK, the UAE and the US.

But an initiative that Australia has stayed well away from is undoubtedly the fossil fuel subsidy reform program. This is curiously being led by New Zealand, which is not known for having a recognisable mining sector.

For Australia to cop out on this initiative is not surprising – but it is also very serious. Australian taxpayers subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of to A$182 per taxpayer every year. A gigantic sum of $9.4 billion over the next four years will be handed out to the most profitable fossil fuel companies in Australia.

So captive is Australia to “big coal” in particular – which donates to both major political parties – that this kind of reform looks a long way off in Australia. Nevertheless, in the communique – which was ceremonially handed over to the UNFCCC head Christina Figueres – New Zealand Prime Minister John Key explains that even a partial phas eout of fossil fuel subsidies would generate 12% of the total abatement needed by 2020 to keep the door open to the 2°C target.

Notwithstanding Key’s leadership, New Zealand was awarded the “Fossil of the Day” by the Climate Action Network (representing 950 NGOs). In a flyer leafleted to the largest newsroom in the world, the network pointed out that New Zealand has increased fossil fuel subsidies seven-fold since Key was elected in 2008. But at least he is getting other countries to do some heavy lifting.

Just one desk at the largest news room in the world. David Holmes

Another initiative that Australia has not joined is the Global Environment Facility – a fund to which 11 developed countries have signed up to with US$248 million in funding to go to adaptation support for the most vulnerable countries on the planet.

The US is a supporter, and President Barack Obama said on day one:

For some, particularly island nations […], climate change is a threat to their very existence. That’s why today, in concert with other nations, America confirms our strong and ongoing commitment to the Least Developed Countries Fund. And tomorrow, we’ll pledge new contributions to risk insurance initiatives that help vulnerable populations rebuild stronger after climate related disasters.

Perhaps Australia never signed up to this as it was being negotiated during the time of the former Abbott government, which cut overseas aid. But, at Turnbull’s statement on Monday, the standout pledge that was made was that:

Australia will contribute at least $1 billion over the next five years from our existing aid budget both to build climate resilience and reduce emissions.

This really is a large sum compared to the Global Environment Facility nations, and is an example of Australia taking proportional responsibility for climate change. And it is also appropriate given Australia’s proximity to sea level rise-affected nations in the pacific.

According to Oxfam, which is represented at the conference, the world’s richest 10% produce half of carbon emissions, while the poorest 3.5 billion account for only 10%. The problem here is that the poorest countries are actually the most vulnerable.

Because of this, a coalition has emerged at the conference of 105 of the most vulnerable countries that are after a 1.5℃ limit to global temperature rise. This gives them a majority power bloc on this figure. As Saleemul Huq from the International Centre for Climate Change and Development said on Tuesday, if the UNFCCC was a democracy:

We would win.

The dramatic inequity between the rich and poor nations looms to be the greatest fissure in any agreement.

Australia is placed firmly on the rich, high-polluter side of the ledger. At an OECD side event on Tuesday entitled “Climate Change mitigation: policies and progess”, the OECD’s director of environment, Simon Upton, put up a website on screen that allows OECD countries to compare their per capita status and emissions intensity. Australia’s emissions stand out acutely.

But with this as a backdrop, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who is here for the first week, looked particularly uncomfortable. He reiterated his phrase that Australia is reducing emissions while blithely dismissive the scale of our domestic and exported emissions. Earlier in the day he had confirmed that Australia would ratify the second part of the Kyoto protocol – subject to cabinet and partyroom approval.

But Hunt had to field the most questions from the audience, which declared that the international community was getting “mixed messages” about its carbon abatement strategies. On the one hand, the mantra of “meeting and beating” such a paltry set of targets is Hunt’s main way of absolving Australia’s stance.

Paolo Frankl from the International Energy Agency was asked by The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor whether a country can achieve a long-term reduction in abatement pricing without an emissions trading scheme. He replied:

Well it can, but it would not be very useful. If you look at Brazil and Australia that is exactly what they are doing now. But in addition to that, there should be a carbon price which would give an additional signal.

Then Hunt had to field a question about the Carmichael mine, and the contradiction that while Australia is meeting and beating an antiquated target, it is exporting embedded emissions that dwarf its domestic emissions. Hunt sought to disown the project by saying that it is not an “Australian government project”, it’s a private firm from India. He said:

Mostly I thought we are over the neocolonial moment where the wealthy decides what happens to the poor.

I think it is the poorest that should be able to make their own decisions.

The problem here is that it is not “India” that is making the decision, but a local multi-billion elite in the form of Adani.

If Hunt really is “over” the neocolonial moment then he is bound to agree with those 105 poorest countries that are pressing for a 1.5℃ guardrail. But that is one figure that the entire conference, let alone Hunt, is not going to meet and beat with the current pledges.

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