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Speech: Australia and the Paris Agreement

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Climate Leadership Conference, Sydney


Speaker: Australia's Ambassador for the Environment Mr Patrick Suckling

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today.

I want to focus my remarks on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and its implications for Australia.

Before I get to this, it is striking to me as Australia's Ambassador for the Environment how so much of the world associates us with the best of our planet's environment and its protection.

In part this is simply because we are blessed with many of the natural wonders of the world.

Sixteen of our nineteen World Heritage Sites are from the natural world.

Places like Uluru, Kakadu, the Tasmanian Wilderness and Queensland's Rainforests infuse our national consciousness.

And of course the world shares our wonder at the incomparable magic of the Great Barrier Reef.

Beyond our blessings, our national psyche is deeply anchored by our relationship with our environment and that is recognised around the world.

It is apparent through the song-lines and dreamtime of our first peoples navigating complex cultural and geographical pathways across our great Southern Land.

I recently saw this nicely put by novelist and academic Ambelin Kwaymullina where she said:

"For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed from the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and carers for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self."

There is also our famed pioneering embrace and nestling in the contours of this amazing country.

And there is the dedication of so many of our communities to the environment over decades – Sydney's green bans come to mind being here today.

We have something of a national poem: "I love a sunburnt country"… no more than these five words conjure all the magnificence of our sweeping plains, ragged mountain ranges, droughts and flooding rains, far horizons and jewel-sea.

Reflecting all this, and in another part significantly contributing to the reputation we have on the environment, successive Australian governments have built our renowned leadership on environmental care

  • in balancing economic and environmental considerations for our world-class framework on sustainable management
  • in management of our precious heritage – for example recent acknowledgement by the World Heritage Committee that our management of the Great Barrier reef is world's best practice, and a culmination of over forty years of effort
  • successive governments have fostered stronger community awareness and action
  • and have helped create world leading Australian science, academia, policy and business support for our environment – and more broadly overseas

This record of success over decades by successive governments underlines that care for the environment is not the provenance of one particular group or another, and spans many different and legitimate concerns and objectives.

Looking after the world we inherit and passing it on in good condition for future generations is a fundamental imperative all of us feel – and why many call it a moral imperative.

So it is a great advantage to represent Australia on the environment. It is part of our evident soft power and influence around the world.

As you know, one of the biggest environmental challenges in current times is the threat of climate change.

As we always have, Australia will play its part in meeting this challenge.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was notable for three key reasons.

First, for growing consensus on the science that climate change is being driven by us humans and that unchecked it will pose an increasing threat.

The most recent internationally endorsed report of thousands of peer reviewed scientific studies concluded that the dominant cause of the global warming evident since the mid-20th century is "extremely likely" to have been our activities. This is as close to emphatic as scientists get.

Since this report in 2014, the climate is changing faster than scientific consensus expected even five years ago.

We are starting to feel the effects. All but one of the 17 warmest years has occurred since 2001, with 2016 the hottest on record.

Climate change impacts such as extreme weather events, melting Arctic sea ice and rising seas, coral bleaching, water stress and human displacement and health problems are becoming evident.

The second notable thing about Paris was that because of growing concern, rather than diverge as they did in Copenhagen in 2009, countries decided to come together to take action against climate change.

This reflects a growing global recognition of the risks.

Sound risk management demands that if risks are assessed as high and the impacts potentially severe then you should take action to reduce the risk; even if you are not absolutely certain about the risk. We all know this from our insurance payments.

Our approach to climate change should be no different.

This approach is evident across the Australian community, whether in surveys showing the majority of Australians support action being taken, to the National Farmers Federation supporting action, to the Business and Minerals Councils of Australia doing likewise.

195 countries signed the Paris Agreement reflecting global concern. To date, 175 countries have ratified the Agreement. The Agreement Entered into Force within a year of the Paris meeting, a record in international law.

At its heart, the Paris Agreement is a commitment to take action to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius to minimise the negative impacts of climate change.

All countries have outlined nationally determined plans for their contributions – these plans are country-specific and sovereign, not imposed.

This reflects the principle that everyone has to play their part, a point underlined by the fact that countries like Australia with less than 2 per cent of global annual emissions together account for over 40 per cent of total emissions. Every bit counts when added up.

The Agreement recognises that current global commitments will not reach well below 2 degrees, so from 2020 every five years each country has agreed to look at what more – voluntarily - they may be able to do.

In this sense, the Paris Agreement is a new approach. It does not seek to impose actions top-down, but elicit them bottom-up. Learning by doing, technological change and sharing best practice should help accelerate this process in coming decades.

Significantly, large emerging market countries like China and India have signed up to take action.

For example, China aims to peak its emissions by 2030 and this may well occur some time before that. It will invest $500 billion in renewables by 2020 – tripling solar and doubling wind power, and already these amount to the equivalent in China of Australia's entire power generation.

India has committed to investing three times Australia's grid in renewables by 2022 and is on track to achieve this. It has an ambitious landcare program to deliver 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon savings by 2030. It is looking at ultra-super critical coal technologies and more nuclear as part of its energy mix.

Indonesia has committed to a 29-41 per cent reduction of emissions from business as usual by 2030.

And so on, around the world.

Of course, from some quarters there is criticism that none of all this is enough and for some this will always be the lament. But we are a world away from Copenhagen and more is being done than ever before, with commitment to do more over time.

Like others, Australia is playing its part. We do so in recognition that it is in our national interest not only to take action to mitigate the risks, but to do it as part of a collective global effort because no one country can address this global challenge alone. Our recent Foreign Policy White Paper makes this clear.

We emphasize the importance of maintaining a strong global rules-based system for the collective good. The Paris Agreement is this principle in action.

In taking action, Australia is building on a record of success. We met and exceeded our emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto I Climate Change Agreement. We are on track to meet and beat our 2020 commitments under the Kyoto II agreement. Emissions per capita, and the emissions intensity of Australia's economy, are at their lowest levels in 28 years.

Our Paris Agreement commitments strike the right balance between emissions reductions and our sustained economic growth – now in its 27th year.

They are ambitious, effectively representing a halving of emissions per person in Australia or a two-thirds reduction per unit of GDP.

Last year we reviewed our climate change polices with an eye on our 2030 commitment. The review found we have a comprehensive set of emission reduction policies in place that will drive the progress we need to meet.

For example, the Emissions Reduction Fund is driving abatement across Australia, notably in the traditionally difficult area of the land sector.

We are on track to meet the target of nearly a quarter of our electricity sector sourced from renewable energy by 2020.

Our energy productivity target of a 40 per cent improvement on 2015 levels by 2030 is driving similar progress – you can do a lot with better standards and technologies.

Our Clean Energy Finance Corporation has made cumulative investment commitments of more than AUD5.8 billion to projects with a total value of more than AUD16 billion.

The National Energy Guarantee will play its part while delivering energy security and affordability…as will our commitment to phase-down hydroflurocarbons.

We will begin the development of a long-term emissions reduction strategy, as called for under the Paris Agreement.

And so on. Success will not come from one measure alone, but a host of measures.

A key aspect to the Government's approach is that our solutions to emissions reductions should be technology neutral.

CSIRO's Low Emissions Technology Roadmap underlines the different pathways we could take in Australia with a mix of all sorts of technologies to meet our commitments.

The meta narrative of the Paris Agreement is that the world has decided to transition to a lower emissions, more climate resilient global economy.

That means we collectively have to pull all levers possible to get there, renewables, reducing carbon from fossil fuels and through nuclear energy for those countries with that option.

Technologies will continue to be developed in all these areas.

For example, there is currently a renewed focus on Carbon Capture and Storage technologies – or Carbon Capture Usage and Storage, as it is increasingly being called, given opportunities to use captured carbon.

For example, the Saudis recently told me they are making fertiliser from captured carbon, the Chinese are looking at it for enhanced oil recovery, and the Germans looking at making mattresses – among other things – from captured carbon.

Under any modelling, CCUS is part of the solution to keeping global temperature rises well below 2 degrees – with broad applicability of this technology beyond coal and gas and oil, to industrials and chemicals.

On this journey the world has embarked, we need to be open to all sorts of possibilities and solutions.

And different country approaches.

A word here about the United States.

The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is disappointing. It is obviously a set-back to the momentum around the Agreement.

But it will not derail the Agreement.

There remains strong global support for the Agreement.

Countries like China, India, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and the UK have publicly reaffirmed their commitment a number of times.

Our Prime Minister and senior Ministers have done likewise.

Absent the US, the Agreement still covers around 75 per cent of global GDP and 85 per cent of global emissions.

Beyond Paris, the US Administration is emphasising longstanding US leadership on emissions reductions and its commitment to continued emissions reductions.

In this it is helped by economics. For cost reasons, the US economy is shifting.

The best example is the shale gas revolution which is outcompeting coal for power and brings significant emissions reductions in the process.

This underlines a point about economic drivers, which is the third point I wanted to make about the Paris Agreement.

The veterans of the Climate Change world tell me that Paris was remarkable for the degree of business and corporate support for action.

Whether from the risks or the opportunities, business is engaging.

On the risks side, any economic transition will involve costs and companies, communities and countries are right to have an eye on these. In some cases in some countries, transition support may have to be part of a successful transition.

For those that argue the costs should preclude action… there will be increasing costs from inaction. The cost of doing nothing is not nothing.

These are the economic costs of the damaging impacts of climate change. For example, as President of the UNFCCC Climate Change negotiations this year Fiji's Prime Minister is underlining his economy lost a third of its GDP recently from one severe cyclone and is drawing similar stories in response from countries around the world.

According to data from one of the world's largest re-insurers – the companies which insure the insurance companies – global catastrophe losses last year totalled USD 330 billion, the second highest level on record. 97 per cent of those losses, they calculated, were weather-related. And the frequency of "high-loss" events, many of them weather-related, has been growing steadily since 2000.

Then there are the costs beyond economic. Large sections of the Great Barrier Reef are currently under stress. A recent report valued the Reef at $56 billion.

Is that really the number we will think of if the Reef disappears?

We know the answer is no, because priceless is how most would describe such a treasure; which is why the Government has put in place the most significant marine park protection strategy ever seen anywhere in the world.

Inaction could see potentially catastrophic costs of climate change. And the Paris Agreement says the world gets this.

On the other hand, action presents increasing opportunities and the world is now increasingly getting that. We don't have to choose between lower emissions and economic growth.

The International Energy Agency has shown a global decoupling of economic growth and emissions reductions.

In our case, over the past decade or so we have reduced emissions while nearly doubling the size of our economy. The UK says it has reduced emissions by over 40 per cent while growing its economy by more than 60 per cent since 1990. Others paint a similar story.

The low-emissions global economy is estimated at US$6 trillion and growing at 3 per cent annually.

Paris Agreement commitments by the 21 largest emerging economies are estimated as a US$23 trillion opportunity. China says it will spend around US$7 trillion alone to meet its 2030 commitments.

Green Bonds have grown from less than US$3 billion in 2012 to a projected US$250-300 billion this year.

Business is increasingly seized of these opportunities. Over 600 major multinational companies, including many of Australia's leading corporates, now factor climate change into their plans.

Where they don't, many are being encouraged to.

A good example is the widely reported insistence by investors in Exxon-Mobil – led by Blackrock – for it to annually report on the implications of climate change for its business.

A less reported but potentially more significant example is legal advice that board members have a fiduciary duty to take into account the impacts of climate change on their business, where they could be personally legally liable for misfortune if they do not.

Finally on this, at the more macro level there is interesting analysis on the synergies between climate action and economic growth. The most recent is a study released last year by the OECD showing that combined climate action and pro-growth economic policies together will provide stronger economic outcomes over the medium and long term, especially if mitigated climate change impacts are taken into account.

Of course, there will be continued debates about the analysis, degree, numbers and so on around much of this. That's as it should be and necessary for any major transition.

But the trend is clear. And that's what business is increasingly focused on.

For Australia, this means new worlds of opportunity.

We have some of the world's best energy resources, including wind and solar.

We have good skills and capabilities in low emissions technologies.

We have a mature and sophisticated market with strong institutions.

We have strong trading relationships with key consumers of energy and economies in transition.

That's a strong board to ride this wave.

And it's a wave we can ride with others.

We are using the opportunities provided by the Paris Agreement to help strengthen key relationships for Australia and to cooperate for mutual benefit.

For example, during his recent visit to Germany the Prime Minister announced a significant project of cooperation between leading Australian and German Universities on next generation technologies for transition.

In New Delhi on the weekend the Governor General attended the launch of India's Global Solar Alliance, a natural fit for us given our capabilities in this area.

It is less well known than it should be that by this year over sixty per cent of solar cell technology worldwide will contain Australian technology, and Australian researchers have held world records for solar cell efficiency for 30 of the past 34 years.

It should also be better known that around one in five Australian households now have installed solar energy.

Our cooperation with other countries extends to working with developing countries. This is a critical feature of the Paris Agreement.

Because we have a national interest in a global collective effort on climate change, it is in our interest to help countries that need support in taking action – and Australia has committed $1 billion in climate finance to 2020.

It is also the right thing to do. The impacts of climate change amplify development challenges.

The World Bank estimates that the impacts of climate change may push 100 million people back below the poverty line by 2030.

Whether it is agriculture, water, infrastructure, coastal livelihoods, health, economic management, transport and so on, climate change is influencing policy.

That is why we are presently better integrating climate finance across our all our areas of development aid priority.

Because if we are not taking the impacts of climate change into account in our aid programs then we are not doing our job properly.

In a simple example, if we help build a road to market in the Pacific and do not climate proof it then we are wasting our money.

Just as important is how smartly we use public money for maximum impact. In this context we are increasingly focused on how to use limited public money to mobilise private sector investment.

For example, as co-chair of the Green Climate Fund we have been instrumental in its efforts to mobilise private sector capital. A good recent example is a $750 million GCF facility that is expected to mobilise around $30 billion in private sector investment in renewable energy projects.

This is the model for success. Because whether here or countries overseas, transition to a lower emissions, more climate resilient economy must mainly be driven by the private sector.

Governments can set directions, such as through the Paris Agreement, and create the right policy environments and facilitate some activity. But in the end the private sector must drive the major change.

Finally, there is a security dimension to the perils of climate change.

Our Defence White Paper and our Foreign Policy White Paper make clear the threats from climate change, and some of the most comprehensive planning around these can be found in our military systems around the world.

This gets to relatively straightforward things like threats to bases, particularly those in vulnerable coastal areas, or battlefield preparedness in the face of hotter temperatures.

More complex planning relates to disaster relief given our defence forces are often the first responders to natural calamities, and also around the potential for climate change refugees.

And as with development aid, climate change impacts can intensify communal friction or the prospect of conflict. While no-one suggests this to be the primary cause of the tragedy unfolding in Syria, there is a credible view that a severe drought and significant associated urban migration contributed to the communal tensions and ensuing violence.

In closing, the Paris Agreement has far reaching implications for Australia.

Because of these implications, the Paris Agreement is not a thing of boffins and scientists, negotiators and bureaucrats.

But a global pact for transformation to protect our precious environment, future prosperity and security.

These are no small things and they touch us all.

Something the world recognised in this historic Agreement.

To which Australia is committed to play its part.

Where in doing so we once again renew that special part of our national psyche rooted in all the beauty and terror of our natural world, and reinforce our sacred bond with this place we all love to call home – sunburnt and all.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 4 April 2018
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