Author: Elizabeth Buchan has a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Policy) and Bachelor of Arts (International Relations and French), from the National Australian University. She currently works in the Australian Government’s Clean Energy Regulator.
On the road to Cop21
2015 is a big year for climate change solutions.
As you know, the international community is set to agree on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change after the year 2020. However, as anyone who has observed the UN negotiations process that guides this agreement knows, it seems to move at a glacial pace (pun intended).
The ultimate goal of the convention of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic climate change’ remains elusive. The International Energy Agency reports that meeting the emission goals currently pledged by countries under the UNFCCC would still leave the world 13.7 billion tonnes of CO2 – or 60% – above the level needed to remain on track for just 2ºC warming by 2035.
One of key issues underlying the negotiations process is the source of greenhouse gas emissions. It is well documented that electricity production and consumption is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
Countries with large fossil fuel reserves and businesses, like Australia, Poland and the United States are often synonymous with being reluctant to commit to ambitious emissions reductions targets.
However, are these countries really to blame?
WANTED: Energy and mining companies
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) recently published a report identifying the top 10 climate polluters who are responsible for nearly one third of Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution. They are predominately energy and mining companies. The ACF also identified several of these companies with highly intensive brown coal plants producing an average of 1.3kg of CO2-e per megawatt hour of electricity, a scale seldom found in the developed world.
The report also shone a spotlight on energy politics, publishing the donations these polluters made to Australian political parties. Their influence permeates right through politics and governments.
The President of the ACF Geoff Cousins “While most of the top 10 polluters publically accept climate change and their responsibilities to reduce pollution, some have opposed important mechanisms such as the carbon Price and the Renewable Energy Target.”
The story is similar around the world, as large fossil fuel companies often have the ear of government smoothed by donations to political parties and government royalties from mining activities.
Robert Kenner’s 2014 documentary ‘Merchants of Doubt’ exposed the tactics of professional deceivers working for the tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries. They spread confusion and doubt about the science of climate change, attacking the credibility of scientists appearing on mainstream news networks like CNN and Fox News.
It is easy to identify and blame these companies for making a major contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and yes many of them use lobbying to further their agendas. However, electricity is an essential service and those companies are also responding to a market demand for their product.
The fossil fuel divestment movement
One solution is government programs and regulation which improve energy efficiency in production and assist the shift away from demand from fossil fuels and improve greenhouse gas emissions abatement. In Australia the main policy provisions are the RET and the Emissions Reduction Fund which is designed to purchase lowest cost abatement from a wide range of sources.
There are signals that the Australian Government is reviewing its commitments to those initiatives in addition to the emissions reductions targets it will commit to.
In 2014 the government commissioned an Expert Panel Review to examine the costs and benefits of the RET. All of the recommendations of the report suggested reducing the target or closing elements of the scheme to new entrants. The government is still considering its response to the recommendations.
The Climate Institute has released modelling showing the government’s existing measures are inadequate to achieve its existing target to cut emissions on 2000 levels by 5% by 2020. Additionally there are reports the Australian Government will be seeking advice on deciding its post 2020 carbon emissions targets.
Worldwide, economic growth, often used as the measure of economic progress is beginning to be decoupled from rising greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that in 3014 emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled. This was the first time in 40 years that a halt or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was not tied to an economic downturn.
The fossil fuel divestment movement has rapidly snowballed successfully shifting financial investment out of fossil fuel companies. Around 200 institutions globally with a combined asset size of over USD$50 billion have committed to divest.
This is an important milestone. The incoming IEA executive director Fatih Birol “This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today.”
It is evident that the big polluters contribute the lions share of greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change. However, it will be people power that pushes the regulatory, political, and demand shift necessary to transition to solutions energy production that don’t harm our climate. In the lead up to the Paris negotiations we should use our consumer and citizen power to shift the demand away from fossil fuels as well as putting pressure on political leaders to commit to an ambitious and inclusive international agreement.