Georgina Woods, director at the Climate Action Network Australia, writes: When I arrived home from the Durban Climate Conference, my mother rang me to ask what had happened, saying, “I’ve seen two different news reports tonight that had opposite interpretations. Is it good, or bad? I can’t tell.”
In truth, the Durban meeting produced a set of good decisions at a time when good decisions are unfortunately no longer enough to change course and avoid dangerous climate change.
As the IEA warned in the month prior to the Durban meeting, on our current path all the allowable emissions for the two-degree goal will be locked-in by existing infrastructure within five years. From here on avoiding more than two degrees warming demands extraordinary decisions, not just good ones.
Last year in Cancun, all countries agreed to the objective of keeping warming below two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. Pledges were made by countries responsible for 80% of global emissions. However, it is well understood and accepted that maintaining and fulfilling current pledges for all countries to 2020 would mean a global warming of over three degrees. Enhanced mitigation action is needed immediately to ensure that global emissions peak by 2015 and we switch to the necessary trajectory to decisively address climate change.
In the lead up to Durban, everyone was talking about the role of the legal architecture of the emerging climate deal to meeting the two degree goal. Seen through that lens, it is no wonder there is some dismay at the outcome of the meeting. The new legal architecture mandated by the Durban Platform will not be adopted until 2015, and will not take effect until 2020 — too late to change our three-degree course.
What is clear from the timeline outlined in Durban is that during the dangerous decade for climate change, domestic mitigation action will precede the introduction of new international legal architecture. The Durban Platform has answered the question of the chicken or the egg in international climate talks: function first, form will follow.
It has not always been this way. For the Kyoto Protocol, first came the mandate, then the treaty, then the rules and finally, in 2007 (a year after the IPCC told us that the commitments made in Kyoto were not going to be anywhere near enough to prevent dangerous climate change) those commitments came into effect.
If we’re to avoid dangerous climate change, time and physics demand that we reverse the process. The good news fromDurban is that the decisions taken by governments provide the opportunity to do just that.
Importantly, the Durban Platform makes clear that the importance of increasing ambition and mitigation action to achieve the two degree goal must occur in parallel to the negotiations on a legal outcome. From next year, governments will begin to develop a workplan “on enhancing mitigation ambition, to identify and explore options for a range of actions that can close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties.”
This work will be informed by the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report due out in 2014, as well as a concurrent review of the adequacy of the two degree goal.
Having secured these outcomes from Durban, Australia can no longer use the United States, China and India as excuses for delaying our decision on mitigation targets — since they have now done what we were demanding they do.
For the last three years Australia has attended the annual decision-making meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change snug in the knowledge that it was unlikely to have to commit itself to the action is has promised. This is because the conditions laid out for that action had not yet been met by countries like the USA,China and India. That is no longer the case.
The Durban outcome sets the negotiations on the path for a new legal architecture that is applicable to all parties, and for the mitigation actions of all countries, not just those rich countries that have ratified Kyoto, to be captured in that legal framework. The Durban Platform has ended that impasse, and the government is describing it as a breakthrough. Our excuse for delaying a decision on mitigation targets is gone.
Though Australia has legislative means to cap and reduce greenhouse pollution, we have not yet made a firm emissions reduction goal.
The world can still meet the two degree goal: the decisions we take over the next four years will determine whether or not we do so. UNEP’s Bridging the Gap Report identifies cost-effective ways to ensure we achieve the global greenhouse emissions reductions by 2020 that will be necessary to prevent runaway climate change. These include energy efficiency measures, transport, agriculture and reduced deforestation, all of which can produce significant and relatively quick abatement.
In the Australian context, further action is needed to reduce pollution in sectors not covered by the emissions trading scheme cap, like transport, agriculture, aviation, shipping and synthetic greenhouse gases.
The current government may have hoped that the passing of the Clean Energy Bills and adoption of the Durban Platform would give them some reprieve on climate change, but that is not the case. Australia’s previous international obligations to reduce greenhouse emissions, under the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, runs out in a year’s time.
By this time next year, Australia will have to commit to a new emissions reduction target; and it must be one that is in line with Australia’s fair share of a global effort to limit warming to below two degrees. Any other course would be an admission of failure on climate change.