For all the legitimate criticism, Paris was a triumph

The Paris agreement did not win scientific approval, but it did set processes in motion for a better future. [15 December 2015| Peter Boyer]

The Australian who was on everyone’s “must see” list at the Paris climate conference wasn’t Malcolm Turnbull nor any member of his government, but a stand-up comic named Dan Ilic.

Greens leader Senator Richard di Natale accepts the Fossil award from Dan Ilic (left). PHOTO Guardian

Greens leader Senator Richard di Natale accepts the Fossil award from Dan Ilic (left). PHOTO Guardian

Ilic’s daily hosting of the “Fossil of the Day” award ceremonies, complete with Jurassic Park theme music, offered some good belly laughs, but also put a spotlight on countries seen to be shirking their obligations.

Many countries got a pasting, including Ilic’s own country, named “Fossil of the Day” last Wednesday for foreign minister Julie Bishop’s remark that “coal will remain critical to promoting prosperity, growing economies and alleviating hunger for years to come”. While the French might say “let them eat cake”, quipped Ilic, in Australia it’s “let them eat coal”.

There was no mention of coal in the final Paris text that Australia and nearly 200 other countries have now accepted. By itself the agreement won’t achieve a low-carbon future, with current national pledges leaving warming around 3C, which would make much of the planet uninhabitable.

But it did ratchet up the tension to resolve the gap between national pledges and the 2C warming limit (or in the impossibly optimistic scenario, a 1.5C limit) by setting up review processes which will press all countries to improve their efforts year-on-year.

A big part of the success was due to the “coalition of ambition”, an informal grouping sparked by demands from low-lying states that the world commit to the 1.5C warming threshold. It won European and US support before Brazil and Canada came on board.

Finally, Australia did too, declaring itself to be ambitious on climate action. That would have been anathema to Tony Abbott, but if the 2015 “Climate Change Performance Index” is any guide, ambition is exactly what we need.

This evaluation, now in its 10th year, is based mainly on objective indicators of emissions trends and levels, with the balance coming from climate policy assessments by more than 200 experts.

For an Australian, the 2015 index makes dismal reading. Two years ago we ranked 37th among the 58 wealthiest countries, but this year we came in at 56th, ahead of just Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. Among the 30 most developed countries we were dead last.

But no country scored full marks, underlining the continuing gap between political rhetoric and reality. As the Paris conference drew to a close, a panel of eminent scientists advised the delegates that their agreed measures can’t deliver a safe climate.

The scientific panel was especially critical of the failure of the draft communiqué to address the need to keep leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground, and said the policies endorsed by the conference would still leave the world at least 3C warmer by 2100.

The gap between rhetoric and reality is starkest in the aspirational 1.5C target. The panel said that to reach that target, we would need global emissions to begin to fall and new coal-fired electricity plants banned world-wide, both starting now.

Of course that won’t happen, so achieving the 1.5C limit may already be impossible. Even the 2C limit is looking at this stage improbable. So why should we feel good about this agreement?

The Paris conference achieved all that we could reasonably have expected of it. Mention of a 1.5C aspiration in the final communiqué was a huge advance, as were reviews every five years, the “ambition” alliance of rich and poor nations, and the boost to climate finance for poor states.

The course of the meeting saw major private interests move from being observers to being active players in sustainability, such that broad-scale shift of investor interest from fossil fuels to clean energy now seems an unstoppable trend.

For the Turnbull government, the agreement forces it to reject the Abbott era’s last-century thinking about fossil fuels and clean energy, and pressures it to revisit its inadequate 2030 target and to accept an important role for carbon pricing in reducing emissions.

The government will face repeated and mounting questioning of its position on coal exports, putting it under unprecedented pressure to turn the policy around. At the same time, the industry itself faces a growing divestment trend and a global market heading downhill.

This agreement is not an end, but the start of a rolling program to keep improving our climate response year-on-year, in which the squeeze will be on governments of all countries, especially the richer ones, to put in more effort.

Paris 2015 is an astonishing achievement for humanity. It is a triumph for French diplomacy and a tribute to the United Nations and the national delegations who supported the outcome, as it is to all the groups and individuals who pressed them to make a binding accord.

We have our universal legal agreement. Now the real work starts.

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