This month, the Clean Energy Bills passed through the Senate and were enacted into law. Australia took its first step towards preventing dangerous climate change — joining almost 100 other major economies that have implemented accountable policies to reduce carbon pollution.
Now, Australia stands alongside nearly 200 countries in Durban, South Africa, for the United Nations Climate Conference 2011. Australian representatives can for the first time speak with some credibility in this international forum, having implemented a domestic policy that provides a framework for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
The International Energy Commission has recently released research which suggests that if our consumption of fossil fuels is not drastically and immediately reduced, we will face runaway climate change within five years. That means more extreme weather events like Cyclone Yasi, bushfires and extreme heat waves for Australia — and it means many of the Pacific Islands will become uninhabitable.
With some progress made in Cancun last year, the question hanging above Durban is how much and how fast substantive progress can be made. Negotiations this year are expected to shift away from the symbolic rhetoric that has characterised previous conferences; and hopes remain high that strong cooperative action will be instigated.
A strong, binding treaty is an unlikely outcome of Durban but this year’s conference still offers a new opportunity to make the elusive treaty a very real possibility within the next five years. Two key goals for many civil society groups, small island nation states and some of the world’s least developed countries at the UN Climate Talks are the signing of a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol; and serious commitments by developed countries to help less developed countries adapt to, and mitigate the effects of, climate change.
In Cancun last year, the international community agreed to limit global temperature increases to two degrees or less. One of the most lauded successes of the conference was the lifeline thrown to the Kyoto Protocol in the context of the US’s highly hostile domestic political environment; and Japan’s refusal to, under any circumstances, agree to a second commitment period.
The Kyoto Protocol survived, but its fate is to be determined in the next 10 days. As the first and only legally binding treaty to reduce global emissions, Kyoto covers the countries that are historically responsible for most emissions and commits them to reductions. Australia’s domestic policy reforms now mean that Kyoto is an opportunity for developed nations like Australia to agree on emission reduction targets and link their carbon trading schemes.
The Durban Climate Talks, and a commitment to the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol will hopefully provide Australia with the incentive to increase its woefully low emissions reduction target of 5 per cent to something in keeping with the average reduction target of comparable economies, around 19 per cent. Australia’s domestic action, alongside the action of almost 100 other economies, may serve to shift the "treaty before action" attitude in favour of more cooperative efforts.
The second issue that is expected to dominate the talks at Durban is the commitment by developed nations to help less developed countries adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change. Historically, countries like Australia, the United States and Britain have consumed the most fossil fuels and contributed the most to climate change. It is smaller, poorer countries however that will suffer the brunt of the effects of climate change as food shortages increase and fresh water supplies become more scarce.
Earlier this year, during the Panama Climate Talks, Australia and Norway crafted a proposal that dealt with mitigation pledges. It was controversial but the talks during the year indicate a commitment to the process and a shared desire within the international community for action. It is of pivotal importance to most of the less-developed world, however, that strong action is coupled with fair and just decisions that allocate funding from the Green Climate Fund and distribute the $100 billion that developed countries have committed by 2020. Distribution of these funds is the only way many less developed countries will have any chance of transitioning to low carbon economies as they deal with the adverse effects of climate change.
Australia has good reason to celebrate enacting our first climate laws. The Climate Talks in Durban present an opportunity for Australia to catch up with the rest of the world before it is too late. We’ve taken the first step at home. Now we need to join with the international community and pledge to dramatically cut our emissions by at least 15 per cent; investing in the renewable alternatives available in Australia as one of the sunniest and windiest countries in the world.
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