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Byron Shire
March 7, 2021

Historic, ambitious climate deal signals end of fossil fuel era

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The Coalition for High Ambition prepares to enter the plenary session on the final day en masse, sans Australia. Photo RenewEconomy
The Coalition for High Ambition prepares to enter the plenary session on the final day en masse, sans Australia. Photo RenewEconomy

Giles Parkinson, RenewEconomy, PARIS

After 21 years of negotiations, two weeks of intense talks and sleepless nights, and the largest gathering of political leaders ever seen, 196 countries have agreed on an historic universal climate agreement that is far more ambitious than anyone thought possible at these UN talks.

The Paris Agreement was sealed on Saturday after what UN secretary general Ban ki-moon described as the most complex negotiations he had ever encountered. The final text was presented after noon, and after the French broke for lunch, and then returned for a plenary session where the text was passed with no objections, and amid wild applause and emotional scenes.

Not only does the text secure binding agreement from both developed and developing countries to keep temperature increases ‘well below’ 2°C, it also calls for efforts to cap the increase at just 1.5°C over industrial levels.

It was hailed as a ‘turning point’ and a signal to the end of the fossil fuel era. Although individual country pledges to do not yet match the agreed goal – they may collectively cap global temperatures at 2.7°C at best – the agreement sets in place a series of stocktakes and reviews, as early as 2018, to encourage countries to lift their efforts.

The key text is Article 2, on the overall ambition, which go beyond what most had though could be agreed on Paris. This is partly due to the emergence of a remarkable Coalition of High Ambition (pictured above) led by the Marshall Islands that cut through traditional negotiating blocs. Australia belatedly joined the Coalition on the last day.

The text aims to

‘Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;’

To do this, it says, parties must seek a global peak in emissions as soon as possible, and to achieve a ‘balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases’ in the second half of the century.

This text did not refer to ‘zero net emissions’ or ‘100 per cent renewables’, and was changed from Thursday’s version of ‘greenhouse gas emissions neutral’, but analysts said it didn’t matter.

‘It seems governments understand this (the need to decarbonise), even if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to say so,’ said Myles Allen from the University of Oxford.

Most analysts suggested that this decarbonisation will need to occur in most countries by 2050. If the 1.5°C target is reinforced at a later meeting, then it will need to occur earlier.

Of course, this would require actions far greater than most individual countries are currently contemplating.

As Malte Meinshausen said last week, the global ‘carbon budget’ – the amount of fossil fuels that can be burned – will be exhausted well before 2030 on the basis of current pledges, suggesting a rapid need to retire coal-fired power stations and replace them with wind and solar and other renewable energy sources.

But some analysts, such as Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson and his colleague Tony Seba, see the transition as not only possible, but inevitable, and happening quicker than most people thought. This agreement could simply accelerate that process.

‘This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history,’ said Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International. ‘This agreement in Paris signals the end of the fossil fuel age and will turbo charge the clean energy revolution already underway,’ said Kelly O’Shanassy, the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

But it was not just the environmental NGOs that were saying this.

‘This is remarkable,’ said Michael Jacobs, from the New Climate Economy, a business grouping.This sends a very powerful signal to the world’s markets. And it has a very strong legal basis. Investors will think twice about investing in new fossil fuel projects.’

Jacobs said that one of the most important aspects of this conference was the engagement of the investor and business community. ‘What they wanted was a signal … that the world was on an irreversible and irrevocable downward trend in emissions.’ He said the long-term goal provided that signal.

The implications for Australia are even more stark. The Coalition government has a target – 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 targets by 2030 – that is seen as one of the weakest in the world.

Mostly, it proposes to achieve that and its shorter term 2020 targets with accounting measures and by using its overhang surplus credits from the Kyoto Protocol.

In a direct snub to Australia, and following pledges by five European nations to cancel their surpluses, the text urges to ‘voluntarily cancel’ those surpluses, particularly those in the second commitment period that Australia wants to deploy.

Climate march in Paris's Champs Elysee. Photo RenewEconomy
Climate march in Paris’s Champs Elysee. Photo RenewEconomy

Plunging cost of wind and solar

Two factors have driven the increased ambition in the text – an increased focus on the science which suggests that the impacts of 2°C warming will not be tenable, and the dramatic fall in technology costs – particularly in wind and solar, and the emergence of energy storage since the Copenhagen summit ended in disarray more than six years ago.

The falls in technology cost suggest that the task of decarbonisation may not be as difficult as once thought, costing little more or even cheaper than business as usual, and saving trillions of dollars globally in avoided health costs and climate impacts, and creating millions of jobs.

Australia, though, finds itself on the outer, both politically and economically. It has no domestic policy or long-term plan to decarbonise the economy, and despite all the rhetoric and soft talk from the Turnbull administration about wanting an ‘ambitious’ outcome, it has so far done little to change the policies of the Abbott era.

If that is to change, it has much to do. Its renewable energy target remains stalled by the obstinacy of the incumbent utilities, and in any case expires in 2020, with no longer-term price signals.

The long-term goal of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions introduced by Labor was junked along with the carbon price, and industrial emissions are rising as fast as the $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund can buy them.

‘We’ve got to start to match rhetoric in Paris with real policies on the ground,’ said Erwin Jackson, the deputy CEO of The Climate Institute and a veteran observer of the UN climate process.

‘Our current target has 3-4°C trajectory, we have no plans to modernise and clean up the power sector. And we don’t have a plan to scale up support for world’s poorest countries. The time for piecemeal, short-term and weak domestic climate change policy is over.

‘There no excuse for either major party. The key barrier for Australia to get on and meet the commitment is our old ageing and inefficient power sector. Both major parties need to come to table with plan to replace coal fleet with clean energy.’

Not everyone happy with the Paris Agreement

Of course, not everyone was happy with the Paris agreement.

In an excellent analysis worth reading, the Guardian’s George Monbiot, who writes: By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.

Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org, said the deal was not strong enough.

‘Every government seems now to recognise that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done.

‘Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.’

But still, his group said: ’This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground.’

Earlier, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, hailed for leading an excellent French diplomatic process, described the agreement as ‘fair, equitable, ambitious, balanced and legally binding.

‘The reduction of greenhouse gases will become the business of all,’ he said.

‘This text will mark a true turning point,’ and the balance was ‘powerful but delicate …. each group of countries to go back home with head held high, having achieved something important.’

Failure to reach agreement would have been unconscionable’ ‘Our children of the world would not understand us, nor would they forgive us.’

This article was first published in RenewEconomy.

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