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Breakthrough in Paris climate talks

Bruce Duncan and Peter Whiting

What a Christmas present! The UN Climate Change conference in Paris concluded with a 31-page global agreement on dealing with climate change,

  • to limit greenhouse emissions to avoid global temperatures rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels,
  • to aim at holding temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and
  • to reach zero emissions by the second half of the century.

It was signed by 187 nations.

The conference agreed to ‘aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible… on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.’ Progress on meeting targets will be reviewed every five years.

However this is only the first step. The post-2020 targets nations have set themselves are at present too minimal and will not stem climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions must fall by at least 20 per cent by 2030; at present they are set to rise by 10 per cent. Moreover, will nations honour the target of giving $US 100 billion a year by 2020 to the Green Climate Fund to finance emissions reductions in developing countries?

Action to avoid climate change is at a critical point if we are to prevent unprecedented ecological disasters. As Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Report in 2006 and one of the leading experts on climate change, warned recently: ‘In human history it’s a one-off’ opportunity for the world to take concerted action to address global warming, for ‘what we map out in the next two decades will be absolutely critical’, he said. ‘Whether we can live in our cities – breathe in them, move in them – all of this will be defined by the decisions we take.’

Stern warned that even Europe was warming more than many o parts of the world, and if temperatures rose more than 2 degrees, many parts of southern Europe could face desertification.

John Schellnhuber, director of German’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – who also helped launch Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ - warned that 2 degrees warming could melt the Greenland ice sheet, raising sea levels by six meters.

As if the earth itself was testifying at the Paris conference, thick smog was choking major cities in India and China, and extreme weather events were flooding some parts of the world while others were enduring prolonged drought.

Global consensus on need to act

Climate deniers must have felt like flat-earth believers of other ages, as representatives and leaders from nearly 200 nations debated how to deal with the crisis, quickly and equitably. More than 140 nations had submitted their plans to cut emissions before the Paris conference, but these fell well short of what was urgently needed.

The conference shows that a global consensus has formed that the world is at a precipice, and if concerted action does not hold and reverse global warming, the consequences for all nations, whether rich or poor, will be very serious.

The World Meteorological  Organisation has declared that the present strong El Nino and human-induced global warming were to blame for global average surface temperatures in 2015 being the highest on record, with prospects for 2016 being even hotter; the world is likely to reach the ‘symbolic and significant milestone’ of 10C above pre-industrial era temperatures.

Speaking in Kenya, Pope Francis in late November said global leaders in Paris were ‘confronted with a choice which cannot be ignored: either to improve or to destroy the environment.’ ‘It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and projects’.

There have been strong debates about the financial costs of implementing agreed emission reductions, especially in poorer and developing nations. Underpinning these financial issues though are very real ethical and moral concerns which call for what Pope Francis termed an ‘ecological conversion’.

Underpinning financial issues are very real ethical and moral concerns which call for what Pope Francis termed an ‘ecological conversion’.

Australia’s response

Australia has been reluctant to commit to robust emission targets. Yet public opinion has shifted markedly in favour of action. A recent Lowy Institute survey indicated that 62% of those surveyed supported bolstering targets in support of achieving a global agreement. With the Labor Party at home committing to an election policy based on the recommendations of the Climate Change Authority with a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions within 15 years, Prime Minister Turnbull will need to revise his party’s policy of a meagre 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030.

Turnbull has just directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to invest in wind energy. The government has the chance to abandon its direct funding model and embrace international emission trading schemes as business has been calling for, and to phase out our ageing coal-fired power plants.

Equity and solidarity

Social equity emerged as a critical aspect in dealing with climate change. Many poor nations are not able to fund measures to reduce emissions. Others, like India, need enormous support to expand renewable energy instead of fossil fuels for millions of their own people. The greenhouse problem is largely the result of industrialisation in wealthier countries, who will need to help others in this transition to a low-carbon economy. The massive subsidies for fossil fuels need to end, and financing for new fossil fuel ventures to be curtained.

Rising sea levels and extreme weather can cause famine and devastation (fire, desertification, tornados etc) displacing millions of people. While forecasts about possible numbers of climate refugees vary widely, we need more co-operative and humane responses by nations and a willingness to share in the task of resettlement. Otherwise mass refugee flows, as we see from Syria and the Middle East now, can cause social and political instability elsewhere.

As Dr Augustine Doronila detailed in his talk about the impact of Pope Francis and the Paris climate conference, action for a sustainable future has to involve everyone. Speaking at the SPC Forum on 2 December, Augustine argued that we in Australia need less emphasis on finances and more on the sense of shared responsibility and pursuit of the common good;

  • less emphasis on border protection and more on compassion and acknowledgement of our common humanity;
  • less self-interest and greater regard for the equal value of each person, wherever they come from.

Photo credit: Alisdare Hickson flickr