Committee Report: The Paris Agreement

Published on Mon 7 November 2016 3:40pm

There simply has to be a different mindset; a change away from recalcitrance and wilful blindness; a change away from the strange determination to do only the bare minimum. We should be more confident, more proactive and optimistic than that in this country. Australia should implement a proper market mechanism to achieve an appropriately ambitious emission reduction target.

Mr Wilson (3:40pm) — by leave—I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this report, which, as the member for Fadden described, covers the Paris climate agreement and the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. I acknowledge the work of the chair, the member for Fadden, the deputy chair, Senator Don Farrell from the other place, and the input of all the committee members who participated. I also thank the JSCOT secretariat for their support and professionalism, as always.

The Labor members of the committee endorse the key recommendations of this report, which support binding treaty action in relation to the Paris Agreement and the Doha Amendment. Paris represents a momentous achievement in drawing together both developed and developing nations for the first time under a framework with a clear objective: to keep global warming substantially below two degrees, and to reach net zero global emissions in the second half of the century.

This is a massive and desperate effort that we are engaged in. It is disappointing that the Labor members of the committee cannot be wholehearted in our approach to the report—in fact, we would probably struggle to be half-hearted—in our endorsement of the position the Australian government has chosen to take within the structure of the Paris Agreement. While Labor members of the committee support ratification, it is disappointing that the treaty actions covered by this report can only be described as weak, poorly founded, and not supported by an adequate policy and program framework for implementation.

I am sorry to think that some on the other side might be half-hearted about the Paris Agreement too, but for different reasons. The truth is no rational person should look at our approach with grudging satisfaction that it is so weak and so unlikely to be effective. We will all bear the costs that come with squibbing this opportunity.

On this issue there should be broad consensus. There should be a shared commitment to real action. In the period from 2007 to 2013 Australia was a leading nation in pursuing emission reductions on the basis of economy-wide reform. We did that through a price on carbon as a prelude to applying an emissions trading scheme; a renewable energy target; and support in both funding and finance for clean energy and energy efficiency projects. We are very conscious on this side that Australia began its contribution to addressing the global challenge of dangerous climate change when Prime Minister Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in December 2007.

Sadly, much of that reform and progress has been undone since 2013. Australia is the only national jurisdiction to have implemented and then removed a market approach to decarbonising the economy. There is currently no commitment to a renewable energy target or to policy that supports large scale renewable energy investment beyond 2020, and the government has sought to remove or defund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Through this policy and program neglect, Australia has plummeted from its position in 2013 as the 11th most attractive renewable energy investment jurisdiction to its current position of 39th, and carbon emissions have risen.

The evidence before the committee in submissions and public hearings showed that Australia’s nationally determined contribution was set without any rigorous analysis of what would constitute our highest possible ambition or what was needed to keep global warming below two degrees. Appearing before the committee in Sydney, Professor Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council of Australia said:

Like many in the climate change area, I do not think that Australia’s targets are nearly strong enough. The original Climate Change Authority report recommended a 45-to-65 per cent reduction, not the 26-to-28 per cent that we currently have as a target. There was a dissenting climate authority report put out a couple of weeks ago indicating that that level of ambition is inadequate to even meet the target of keeping temperatures below two degrees.

Dr Luke Kemp, who appeared before the committee in Canberra, referred us to a paper from Climate Action Tracker, titled ‘Australia set to overshoot its 2030 target by large margin’. That report states:

… Australia’s commitment is not in line with most interpretations of a “fair” approach to reach a 2°C pathway: if most other countries followed the Australian approach, global warming would exceed 3-4°C.

The Labor members of the committee believe that Australia should increase its emission reduction target and its NDC as soon as possible. I note that the policy Labor took to the election was for a 45 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, complemented by a 50 per cent renewable energy target.

It should be a concern to everyone in this place and more widely that Australia does not have a sufficient or effective legislative, policy, and program framework in place to deliver on its Paris Agreement commitments. Indeed, Mr Brad Archer, First Assistant Secretary within the International Climate Change and Energy Innovation Division of the Department of the Environment and Energy, said:

The projections we have produced to date do indicate emissions rising for some period, but the important proviso there is that those projections do not take into account the suite of government policies that are in place. The government will, as I understand it, release updated projections before the end of this year.

And, in relation to whether there could be any confidence that existing government policies could deliver on Australia’s NDC, Mr Archer observed:

I think the confidence stems from the fact that the government can implement policy. It is not locked into the settings that are in place today. The time it has decided to undertake that review is next year.

In other words, it is possible that we could meet our relatively weak target, but only if significant policy changes are made.

And that goes to the heart of the problem: our nationally determined commitment is as yet a soft one and unfortunately our existing policies will not deliver on that commitment. What is more, our existing policies have not been prepared with a view to delivering a just transition, a fact that the ACTU made clear during the committee process. I will conclude by returning to the elephant in the room, which is the question of an economy wide framework for emission reduction. As Professor Tim Stephens, who appeared before the committee in Sydney, said:

… with the repeal of the Clean Energy Future legislation we currently do not have any overarching legislation that says Australia is aiming for these cuts by a certain time. So, we have no legal apparatus to give effect to our Paris commitments.

And, as Dr Luke Kemp said, in answer to a question about what should be done to fix that gap:

To me it is quite obvious: you abide by every single economic textbook that has been published and you would price carbon; you would price the externality. I don’t think that is politically acceptable or feasible right now. But there is a big gap between what economics and academia would suggest and what is politically feasible.

There is no good reason for there to be such a big gap. It is our job in this place to respond to the science; to follow the evidence; to answer the call that comes from the broader community and the investment community alike.

There simply has to be a different mindset; a change away from recalcitrance and wilful blindness; a change away from the strange determination to do only the bare minimum. We should be more confident, more proactive and optimistic than that in this country. Australia should implement a proper market mechanism to achieve an appropriately ambitious emission reduction target. And Australia should get back on the path to being a ‘renewable energy superpower’—that is our destiny—and it is the title of the latest report from Beyond Zero Emissions, and I would like to finish by quoting from that report:

A global transition to renewable energy is an unavoidable condition to ensure a safe climate in the future. It is in the interest of the planet. It is in the interest of Australians today, and of generations to come. The dimming fossil energy past can be let go with confidence because the renewable energy future is bright.
It is good and it is right that Australia will ratify the Paris Agreement. It is a shame that our participation through treaty action in this global cause has been set so weakly on this occasion—with no rigour and very little courage. That is not in keeping with our recent history; and it is not in keeping with our national character.

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