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Issue #1694      July 22, 2015

Paris climate talks

Titanic struggle for world’s future

In November United Nations delegates will assemble in Paris to discuss climate change. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol, which stated mandatory targets for developed nations to reduce their level of greenhouse gas emissions, was signed and ratified by representatives of 192 nations.

The Protocol acknowledged that climate change could only be curbed by wealthy western nations providing a stated amount of financial assistance to developing nations to help them reduce their level of carbon emissions. However, the US did not sign.

At Copenhagen in 2009 delegates from a number of developed nations, including the United States and Australia, claimed the Kyoto Protocol was due to expire even though it has no stated time limit.

They demanded that it be replaced by a totally new document entitled the “Copenhagen Accord”, which would slash the assistance package western nations were obliged to provide, and place the potentially crippling financial burden of dealing with climate change on the shoulders of developing nations.

Not surprisingly, the developing nations rejected the Copenhagen Accord. The Kyoto Protocol was saved but the western nations group refused to acknowledge their continuing obligations under it. Since then western politicians and the mass media have blamed developing nations for the disastrous outcome of the Copenhagen meeting.

New developments

During the last five years the incidence of extreme weather events, including a four-year drought in northern Australia, has increased. In order to avoid a catastrophic 2 degree rise in average global temperatures, human industry must cut carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2050.

Scientists are even claiming that the tilt of the Earth’s axis has altered very slightly because increased carbon in the atmosphere from human industry has raised the average global atmospheric temperature, causing the melting of 600 billion tonnes of polar ice and a rise in sea water volume.

A group of nations including the United States and China have committed to phasing out the use of all fossil fuels as an energy source by 2100. Making such a commitment is easy with a deadline so far away, but the statement is nevertheless highly significant because it admits that phasing out fossil fuels is essential to curb climate change.

Moreover, the demand for coal is now declining as a result of growing awareness of the problem of climate change and public pressure for governments to take effective steps to mitigate it.

As a developing nation China is not obliged to reduce its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Its emissions are still rising in absolute terms, but compared to 2005 levels they have actually fallen by 30 percent per unit of GDP.

China has committed US$7.7 trillion for conversion initiatives aimed at producing 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2030. At that point its carbon emissions will peak and begin to fall. China’s demand for coal is decreasing, and some observers claim the peak will be reached sooner than 2030

The United Sates has pledged to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030. Australia aims to achieve a cut of only 5 percent by 2020, and has yet to announce a new target.

The internal struggle

At the Paris climate change meeting there will undoubtedly be a titanic struggle between delegates who support decisive and effective action to deal with climate change and those who are determined to resist it.

That will reflect a struggle between two major sections of capital, one representing the tremendously powerful fossil fuel industries, the other representing the emerging renewable energy industries and other industries deeply concerned over climate change.

Nowhere is this contradiction more clearly seen than in Australia. It remains to be seen whether the US government will play the same role in Paris as it did in Copenhagen five years ago, but it’s certain that the Abbott government will.

The government’s current strategy is to pay lip service to curbing climate change, while taking every action possible to protect the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal.

After it took office in 2013 the government produced its so-called “Direct Action” scheme, under which high carbon emitting industries would receive taxpayer-funded payments to cut their emissions. The government has said it will fine companies that fail to cooperate, but has also declared it does not intend the scheme to be punitive!

It showed no such timidity with organisations concerned with climate change. It disbanded the Climate Commission, which was thankfully salvaged by a group of concerned individuals and private organisations. It then tried to eliminate the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) but was frustrated by the Senate.

Nevertheless, its recent success in reducing the Renewable Energy Target (RET) has stalled or retarded a number of renewable energy power generation projects. The CEFC funded $500 million in the last financial year, but that figure represented a 45 percent drop in commitments, predominantly caused by unease amongst investors over the RET reduction.

Abbott recently described wind towers as unhealthy, although there’s no scientific evidence to support this notion. The government has now ordered CEFC to cease financing wind farms and small scale (rooftop) solar power projects, and instead “support innovative and emerging technology”.

Supporting emerging technology is certainly essential. However, the overriding objective of CEFC should be to help reduce Australia’s carbon emission levels as quickly as possible. That’s what it’s doing now, but abandoning support for wind and rooftop solar would block that objective, bringing Australia’s renewable energy sector, worth an anticipated $8.7 billion over the next five years, to a grinding halt.

The CEFC previously disobeyed the government’s order to cease operations, arguing that doing so would break its contractual obligations to its clients and violate its legislative charter. CEFC is currently taking legal advice as to whether the same rule would apply to the order to abandon wind farms and rooftop solar. It must respond to the government by 24 July.

Whatever happens at the Paris meeting, it is very clear that the first important step we can take to help the world meet the challenges of climate change is to eject the Abbott government from office at the earliest opportunity.

Next article – Editorial – Racism and cynicism – a powerful blend

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