Will greenies play into the sceptics' hands in Paris?

Climate advocates need to remember the lesson from Copenhagen and not demand perfection at Paris. Today's report from the Climate Change Authority provides a blueprint for what's possible and reasonable.

Remember in 2009 how the world was going to be saved in Copenhagen?

With George Bush Jnr having been seen off and Barack ‘Change we can Believe In’ Obama holding the reigns of the US presidency, plus K-Rudd backing him up using his Mandarin to butter up the Chinese, environmental groups told us to expect the world to sign up to a legally binding set of aggressive emission cuts.

It would be the Kyoto Protocol, but bigger and better. Anything less would be a failure, we were informed.

Well it was a failure by this benchmark. And didn’t the climate sceptics delight in telling everyone so!

Yep, the green groups really overplayed their hands and, in doing so, they played directly into the hands of the climate sceptics. Former Liberal senator Nick Minchin could barely disguise his delight as his strategy of delay on legislating carbon pricing until Copenhagen worked out splendidly.

The Climate Change Authority has released a report today that is like a great big warning label to environmental groups for forthcoming major climate treaty negotiations to be held in Paris in late 2015: don’t set yourself up for failure twice.

The authority’s report, International climate change: priorities for the next agreement, makes this clear on the first page:

One thing the Paris meeting will not deliver is a universal, prescriptive, enforcement-oriented legal agreement, similar in form to the existing Kyoto Protocol. For one thing, such an outcome is not achievable in the short term. Insisting on it would likely be counterproductive, and lead to more modest global action.

There are some reasons for genuine optimism that the Paris meeting will deliver a good platform for progress on emission reductions.

The US now has some solid domestic policies in place to drive down emissions, whereas in the lead up to Copenhagen President Obama had nothing concrete to deliver on his aspirations.

In addition, the other key piece of the puzzle, China, now leads the world in renewable energy installations and solar PV manufacturing. Beijing also appears willing to consider implementing a national emissions trading scheme by 2020, and is showing tentative signs of restraining growth in coal use.

But one needs to be careful not to get carried away.

The Climate Change Authority suggests that what we can ideally expect from Paris is a rigorous basis for countries to keep score on one another’s emissions reduction efforts; where peer pressure and public scrutiny in effect drives progress rather than a threat of penalties via a formalised legal structure.

The authority’s chief executive, Anthea Harris, explained in an interview that a focus on making emission targets legally binding is misplaced:

Anthea Harris:  …whether countries’ targets that they put down, whether those targets are legally binding – that is such a red herring. So, for example, the US has got a stronger target than us, no matter which way you look at it.  They’re doing it. Is it legally binding in an international sense? No. Are they going to meet it? Yes. So, you know, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what countries are actually doing.

Tristan Edis:  I suppose the other thing is that Canada ultimately did ratify Kyoto ...

AH:  And they pulled out.

TE:  … and then didn’t deliver…

AH:  Exactly.

TE:  … pulled out and has received no penalty out of that.

AH:  Exactly. So, most people when you think legally binding, you know, we lay people, it’s excusable for us to think something dreadful is going to happen to you if you don’t do what you said you would do. Now, in this international arena that’s not really the case. 

According to the CCA's report a good outcome from Paris would have the following elements:

1)  Greater clarity on the final end-goal we’re all striving towards. At present this is defined as restraining warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However this doesn’t really confirm the emissions limit we are seeking because there isn’t certainty about the precise level of warming you can expect from a given level of greenhouse gases. So the authority suggests it would be good if Paris could clarify that we want – say a 50 per cent chance or a 67 per cent chance, or some other probability, of keeping warming to below 2 degrees, or maybe even below 1.5 degrees.

2)  Agreement on how all countries will measure and report emissions so we aren’t comparing apples and pears and so that we have some transparency about what’s happening in each country.

3)  That all major emitters put forward readily measurable, quantified emission targets over similar timeframes (they suggest emission budgets over 2021 to 2025) so people can readily assess how each country is progressing towards its targets and one is able to compare each country’s contribution to the final end-goal.

4)  How countries will recognise and facilitate trade between countries in emission permits and credits and ensure that there is no double counting towards targets.  

5)  An agreed process for regular and independent review of progress towards emission goals.

This all seems like common sense, and nothing much to get excited about. In some respects that might be right, because it is countries which enact laws and enforce them, not the United Nations. Also, the impact on trade competitiveness of emission reduction policies has been blown far out of proportion.

Nonetheless, people and their respective governments’ willingness to act on emissions is heavily influenced by what other countries (or jurisdiction, in relation to the European Union) are doing. An international agreement that creates transparency about what countries are doing will be important to foster trust and goodwill that no one is acting alone and bearing an unjust burden.