The Paris Agreement: Is Australia’s Commitment More Than Hot Air?


There were tears of relief from the low-lying nations’ delegates at the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

A 195-nation accord had just given them a lifeline; a commitment to holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The landmark agreement sent a wave of hope through the masses of people looking for greater climate action, but not all see the agreement as a success.

The father of climate awareness, Dr James Hansen of Colombia University, immediately denounced the agreement as a “fraud”. “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises,” he told The Guardian at the time.  “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

A year later, the jury is still out on whether Australia will even come close to playing its part in the ultimate goal of global net zero carbon emissions by 2050, despite ratifying its obligation to the landmark UN agreement on November 4.

CEO of the Carbon Reduction Institute (CRI) Rob Cawthorne is excited by the hope the agreement brings, but also recognises its lack of teeth. “With no enforcement, the agreement is little better than a handshake,” he believes. “If China or the US fails to meet their commitments, are we really going to enforce carbon tariffs or trade embargos?”

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation Kelly O’Shannassy told The Huffington Post Australia she also has grave reservations. “At 1.5 degrees [of global warming] and above they [islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu] lose their homes,” she says. “At 1.5 degrees and above, we lose the Great Barrier Reef… we’re already seeing this and we haven’t even got to those levels of warming yet. If we don’t get on to reducing pollution fast, it is just a piece of paper.”

Australia has pledged to cut 2005-level emissions 26-28 per cent by 2030, and reinforced that commitment at the recent 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, Morocco where signatories met to iron out a roadmap for the landmark agreement.

Many delegates there were reportedly sceptical of just how Australia proposed to achieve that target, but Australia’s power-players Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Environmental and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg remain buoyant.  Mr Frydenberg continues to make the case for gas as the transitional fuel to help coal-dependant Australia deliver reliable base load power while lowering carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Ms Bishop says the $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), the “centrepiece” of the Government’s 2020 policy package, proves the plan is working – already 15 per cent of our households use solar energy, the highest proportion in the world. “Australia has a strong track record on international emissions reduction targets,” Ms Bishop tells Fairfax Media.  “We beat our first Kyoto target by 128 million tonnes and are on track to meet and beat our second Kyoto 2020 target by 78 million tonnes.”

But others aren’t so convinced.

As recently as mid-2015, Australia was still labelled a climate change “free-rider”, dropping off a list of nations taking “credible” action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to a panel led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The latest data from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) – independent scientific analysis produced by three research organisations – is perhaps the most damning evidence that Australia is lagging well behind other developed nations in climate control.

CAT believes that under present policy settings, Australia’s emissions are set to increase to more than 21% above 2005 levels by 2030, equivalent to an increase of around 52% above 1990 levels.

Unless there is a radical review of ERF, Australia will miss its 2030 target by a “large margin”, maintains CAT.

Mark Butler, Labour’s climate spokesman, echoed those sentiments recently. “The Turnbull Government has no policy for renewable energy investment post 2020, which is also crucial to meet our Paris obligations,” he told Fairfax. “As the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] has also pointed out, nor does the Government have a plan for a Just Transition to a clean energy economy, as the Paris Agreement calls for.”

Liberal MP Craig Kelly, the chairman of the Government’s backbench committee on the environment and energy, went even further, labelling the Paris Agreement a “cactus” in a Facebook salvo immediately after US President-elect Donald Trump’s upset at the polls. George Christensen, the outspoken Liberal National party backbencher from Queensland, later backed Mr Kelly’s view.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull concedes that the “mechanisms” currently in place to meet the 2030 Paris Agreement targets may need to be revised at the Direct Action climate policy review in 2017. But he remains steadfast in his conviction to the promise, and unshaken by the imminent arrival of such a powerful climate science dissenter to The White House.

“With all the great work done by the US in reducing its fossil fuel usage over the last eight years, maybe Donald Trump could use carbon tariffs as a way of balancing the costs for manufacturing; we can only dream,” adds CRI CEO Rob Cawthorne.

The Climate Institute, for one, was encouraged by the mood in Morocco after the Trump cloud lifted. In a press statement from the event, the institute cleverly subverted the ‘cactus’ dig by calling the agreement a “hardy plant resilient to adversity”. “This has been a remarkable meeting of nations,” said John Connor, CEO The Climate Institute from the talks in Marrakech.“Countries, states, cities, companies and others have responded with grace, vigour and guts to the election of President Trump which could have been a massive blow to climate action. “Australia, like other nations, now needs to get down to getting to zero emissions and recognise that it can be a winner in the global clean energy future.”

Only time will tell if that comes in time for the families of our Pacific Island neighbours.