Real hope on climate change?

In a piece of news some will regard as predictably disappointing, the Cancun Climate Conference has reached an agreement, but its targets are both non-binding and fairly modest (reputedly a 1 reduction in emissions of 13-16% by 2020), and include both developed and developing nations.  While that’s less than needed to avoid a global temperature rise of much more than 2 degrees C by 2100, it’s at least a good start if the commitments can be converted to binding ones in the next few years.

Agreement about the $100 billion per year commitment of developed nations to assisting the developing world is even better news:

The Green Climate Fund is intended to raise and disburse $100bn (£64bn) a year by 2020 to protect poor nations against climate impacts and assist them with low-carbon development.

I always thought the expectation of a universal binding climate agreement either at Copenhagen or Cancun was a wildly optimistic, utopian fantasy.  International politics, conflicting national interests and understandable mutual distrust mostly militate against quick, neat, global scale agreements.

However, that doesn’t mean major progress is impossible in a rather more messy, chaotic, ad hoc way.  In fact significant progress has already been made since Copenhagen despite its seeming failure.  For example, Brazil has achieved an impressive reduction of almost 60% in the rate of Amazon deforestation over the last 2 years:

This is the second consecutive year Amazon deforestation has reached a record low, dropping 13.6 percent below last year’s record low rate, President Lula said. Last year, Brazil slowed the rate of Amazon deforestation by 45.7 percent from August 2008 to July 2009. …

In 2009, Brazil passed into law a commitment to cut its projected greenhouse gas emissions between 36.1 and 38.9 percent by 2020.

Deforestation reduction is a critical part of Brazil’s strategy to reduce national emissions; official calculations estimate that meeting deforestation reduction targets could reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24.7 percent.

In October 2010, President Lula announced that Brazil’s 80 percent Amazon deforestation reduction target would be met by 2016, four years earlier than promised.

Even Indonesia has announced a 2 year moratorium on rainforest clearing in return for a $1 billion grant from Norway, although the deal seems to have more holes in it than swiss cheese.

China, demonised along with the US as the main culprit for the failure of Copenhagen, is arguably making the greatest progress of all towards combating climate change. China is moving towards a market-based carbon price (presumably some form of emissions permit trading scheme) as early as next year, and is also making impressive progress in the meantime, especially by comparison with Australia:

Australia’s failure to impose a higher cost on carbon emissions has discouraged investment in renewable energy, according to a report prepared for the 2 Institute by London-based Vivid Economics and published today. Investment in cleaner energy in Australia was less than $1 billion last year, compared with $11 billion in the U.K, $18 billion in the U.S. and $35 billion in China, it said. …

Australia’s current policies, including a goal of sourcing 20 percent of power from renewable energy by 2020, imply a carbon price of $1.70 a ton for electricity producers, the study found. That compared with $29.30 in the U.K., $14.20 in China, $5.10 in the U.S., $3.10 in Japan and $0.70 in South Korea. …

China, the world’s biggest polluter, said in July it may spend about $750 billion in the next decade developing cleaner alternatives to burning oil and coal. The country is replacing inefficient and high-emitting coal-fired power stations and spurring renewable energy with subsidies, the report said.

While this is advocacy research and should be treated with a grain of salt, it does indicate that China’s image as a recalcitrant laggard on climate change policy is at the very least simplistic.  It is likely that China knows very well that it has no practical choice but to implement stringent greenhouse gas reduction policies and has every intention of doing so, but is not prepared to compromise its sovereignty at this stage to a binding international agreement, especially given the highly dubious outcomes of the Kyoto Protocol and the West’s ambivalent attitudes towards it so dramatically emphasised by Wikileaks .

The bottom line for Australia is that the climate change policy ball is now squarely in the Gillard government’s court.  We can only hope that rhetoric is matched by action in 2011.  Fortunately, the Greens’ holding of Senate balance of power, along with at least two of the Reps cross-benchers in Green Adam Bandt and former Green Independent Andrew Wilkie, will together help to ensure that Labor won’t have much choice but to make a serious effort at achieving a legislated carbon price.

The big problem Gillard will need to surmount is that the Greens can be expected on previous form to oppose compensation to “polluters” from carbon tax/ETS revenue, whereas Labor will correctly assess that failing to offer such compensation would be political suicide in the face of Tony Abbott screaming “GREAT BIG NEW TAX” and with affected businesses opportunistically joining in the chorus.  The fact that so many voters swallowed the mining industry’s spurious propaganda to that effect in the lead-up to the recent federal election rather strongly suggests that such a tactic would be likely to work again unless industry is brought onside, as does recent opinion polling on community attitudes to climate change.

I suspect that to get a substantive outcome Gillard may need to lift Australia’s 2020 emissions reduction target of 5-15% to more like 20%, as the carrot to persuade the Greens to agree to generous compensation to industry.  It needs to be understood that the Greens’ opposition to industry compensation always had much more to do with stubborn moral purity than rational policy.  Surely the aim of any workable emission reduction policy should be to achieve a price on carbon that will encourage adoption of much lower emission energy technologies.  Returning some of the revenue from a carbon tax or ETS scheme to the “polluters” in no way undermines that objective because, once a price mechanism exists, affected industries have just as much incentive to reduce the price they pay by investing in cleaner technology irrespective of whether they receive one-off lump sum compensation.  Indeed, receipt of compensation will make it easier to make or bring forward the major investment decisions that will be needed to achieve emission reductions in the order of 20% by 2020.

The last piece of paradoxically good news comes with the fact that 2010 is on track to be the first or second hottest year on record, despite the fact that we’re in the midst of a La Nina event and nowhere near the 12 year Solar Maximum.  It’s good news because it will make it much more difficult for the anti-warming shills and denialists to convince the general public that human-induced warming isn’t happening or has stopped ( a favourite RWDB meme over the last couple of years).

The next year promises to be a fascinating and possibly decisive one in the climate change debate.

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About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

The idea of the fund for developing countries fills me with despair actually Ken. Not that I’m against giving them a helping hand, but it’s a sign that the whole thing is still dominated by the gratuitous ideologising of the whole agenda. Imagine if there was a drought and we said that it was fine for the poor to hold out till they got compensation for meeting their water consumption reduction targets. I don’t mind giving the money away, but if it’s not given away (as well it might not be) will the developing countries still deliver? Will they deliver even if the money is forthcoming.

Anyway I agree with you on the rest. It’s been clear for a long time that the Chinese were doing a damn site more than most developed countries.

13 years ago

“China, the world’s biggest polluter, said in July it may spend about $750 billion in the next decade developing cleaner alternatives to burning oil and coal”

I’m sure anyone unlucky enough to inhale Chinese air for more than 10 to 15 minutes will be happy about this for that reason also, so this one is really a double win for China (indeed, a quintuple win if they won’t have to go fossicking around some of the unpleasant countries of the world to get the energy they need, if they can close down many of their own dangerous mines, and if they can sell some of the technologies they develop, all of which seem rather likely).

13 years ago

The Chinese are cutting their energy intensities per dollar of output by 40-45per cent by 2020 – as their energy efficiencies are less than half those of developed countries this is very much a no regrets option.

There has as yet been no announcement on a carbon tax for china – it might happen but your claim is jumping the gun.

I can’t see much from this Cancun Agreement. Who is paying the $100b – the same offer was made at Copenhagen? How will the US cuts be made in absence of an ETS? When will china and India begin mitigation as opposed to intensity reduction.

On current projections china will add to emissions by 2030 the current level of US emissions. Reducing intensities is not enough and in any event is an old news policy.

The agreement by developing countries to allow monitoring is a big nothing. It was never a serious claim. How on earth can you have an international agreement to cut emissions without monitoring the damn emissions?

I hope I am wrong but at first sight I cannot see much from Cancun.

13 years ago

And isnt the ‘next year’ optimism becoming a bit worn. I think the world’s politicians are acting exactly in accord with their profession. As politicians. They see this whole thing as a debating competition – they make me feel ill when they try to hide failures as restricted successes. But there will be more ‘next year’. And next year……


[…] the subtleties or just being a bit obtuse.  I had a brief say at Club Troppo (in response to a somewhat discursive and inaccurate post by Ken Parish) and at East Asia Forum (in response to a piece by Peter Wood) on these […]

Bill Ivinson
Bill Ivinson
13 years ago

Hi Ken,

Please contact me when you have a chance. My contact details are:

Bill Ivinson Consultancy Pty Ltd
Email –
Phone/Fax – 07 3714 9735
Mobile – 0400340077