Wrapping up the Paris Climate Change summit

As the gavel dropped on 14 days of intense, sleepless negotiations, delegates at this Paris Climate Change summit celebrated – 194 nations from around the globe had finally managed to agree on a set of crucial words.

By signing on the dotted line, they’ve collectively commitment to attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will limit the global average temperature to a rise “well below” two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. That magic number is the level of warming deemed to be the point when dangerous climate change could threaten life on Earth.

And despite what the cynics may say, this isn’t just a lot of hot air. One of the more surprising outcomes of the conference was an effective campaign run by the island states and low-lying countries with the most to lose like Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands, Vietnam and the Philippines. They lobbied to change the goal of the agreement from limiting global warming at two degrees to bringing it back to less than 1.5 degrees.

What does this actually mean?

The Australia-German Climate and Energy College suggests that to get to that number a full decarbonisation of the electricity sector must occur by 2050 – or even faster than that if the world is truly serious about aiming for “well below 2°C”, or the aspirational “1.5°C” goal that the island states pushed for.

Significantly, for the first time ever, the agreement pledged to review each country’s emissions every five years and conduct regular global “stocktakes” of the targets and also the finance being provided.

And while the pledge may not be legally binding (largely to bypass the potential for US Congress to block it and in a nod to the sensitivities of India and China), the implications for the energy sector are clear: this significant summit marks the end of the fossil fuel era.

The immediate and very real effects of this pledge will mean a boost in existing investment trends in renewable energy and confirm a move to a zero-carbon global economy. As John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute stated after the conference wrapped, this pledge “…signals to communities, investors and companies around the world that the shift to clean energy is now unstoppable.”

A dramatic shift

Experienced observers who’ve attended dozens of these talks over the decades were surprised by the dramatic shift in sentiment compared to the failed Copenhagen talks in 2009.

The difference? Industry is on board, whether governments come along for the ride or not.

Clive Hamilton wrote in The Conversation: “in the last fortnight I have witnessed the quite amazing shift among investors and “non-state actors” that signals a sea-change in climate action that now seems unstoppable.”

What does this mean for energy consumption in Australia?

Kobad Bhavnagri, the head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Australia, said that Australia would need to deepen its current pledge of 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030 towards the 45 to 65% range recommended by the Climate Change Authority.

This would require more renewable energy and an extension of the 2020 renewable energy target to a 2030 target, as well as a specific policy aimed to retire coal-fired generators (around 75% of the country’s coal-fired generators are running beyond their original closure dates) and regulations or pricing of carbon emissions.

Even before the Paris Summit, the writing was on the wall. As Alan Kohler wrote in The Australian: “…with the oil and coal prices tumbling, the goalposts have already moved a long way, and just keep moving … it’s hard to see how fossil fuel producers will be able to get their prices up with the world on a strict carbon diet.”

The Paris Summit may well be the tipping point when it comes to setting Australia and the world on a path to sustainability, but before the champagne corks pop, it’s important to remember that Paris is a significant step forward, not the end game.