From the Paris climate talks

Lesley Hughes

As an academic, I have regularly attended conferences, both national and international over the years. The Paris climate talks (COP21) are just like a really big academic conference (~45,000 delegates, though thankfully they didn’t all come at once), mixed with a hefty dose of the Royal Easter Show (minus the rides and fairy floss), plus a lot of important-looking people in suits (except for the ones in faux leopard caftans and feathered headresses).

The main problem at such an event is that there is so much going on at once – and then once the choice of event is made, there is the inevitable feeling that no matter how interesting the presentation, perhaps there is something better going on somewhere else!

Given that an individual can only sample a small fraction of what’s on offer, here are the top 5 things that have stood out during my first COP experience.

1. The international negotiations are only part of the show

Much of the outside attention is focused on the questions ‘Will there be an agreement?’, ‘Will it be legally binding (whatever that means)?’, ‘Will China/India/Saudi Arabia [insert difficult country of your choice] scuttle the final draft? etc., etc. But there is so much more going on! Such as .

2. The unstoppable train of renewable energy development

Virtually everywhere you turn at the Paris climate talks, and in every list of events at every venue, renewable energy is the story.

Last Sunday Prime Minster Narendra Modi of India launched the Global Solar Alliance, comprising over 120 countries, stating that fossil fuels ‘were putting the planet at peril’ and ‘the world must turn to the Sun to power the future.’

The African nations have created the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) with the goal of least 10 GW of new renewable energy generation capacity by 2020 and 300 GW by 2030.

Businesses, both large and small, are also taking huge strides. Google announced that they aim to triple their purchases of renewable energy by 2025, and power their operations with 100 per cent clean energy. Bill Gates and others announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a multibillion dollar clean energy fund – described as the largest such effort in history – to pay for research and development of new clean-energy technologies. The fund has the joint backing of the governments of the United States, China, India and other countries.

3. Lots of positive things are happening despite national and international leadership

Sub-national governments are taking measures into their own hands, regardless of the leadership, or lack of it, by their national policy-makers. One of the most heartening events I attended was a panel presentation by representatives of the Victorian, Queensland and South Australian state and local governments. Melbourne and Adelaide are openly competing to be world’s first carbon neutral city – now that’s the sort of competition we need! And it’s not just in Australia – last Friday, 1000 mayors and local leaders from cities including Paris, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Stockholm announced that they would go 100 per cent renewable.

4. Australia is not walking the talk

On a more negative note, our national government is talking big, but in reality, has taken Tony Abbott’s low ambition policies to the Summit. This was displayed for all the world to see when the Climate Change Performance Index was released a few days ago. This index is a comparison of climate protection performance of 58 countries that are, together, responsible for more than 90 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Australia was ranked as third-last of 58 countries assessed, with only Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia rate below.

But an even lower point occurred last Tuesday, with Julie Bishop’s ‘let them eat coal’ speech. Bishop maintained the specious and shameful argument, previously delivered by fellow Coalition members, including the PM and Environment Minster, that fossil fuels are needed to alleviate poverty and hunger in the developing world, wilfully ignoring the fact that developing nations are already suffering the impacts of climate change the most, and will continue to do so.

Further, it is these nations who have been the strongest voices calling for help to leapfrog over the mistakes the industrialised nations have made (see point 2 above). For her efforts, the Foreign Minister earned Australia its first ‘Fossil of the Day’ award during this meeting. This award is given daily to the nation who has been the most unhelpful to the spirit of the negotiations.

5. The spirit and resilience of Paris

I was wandering the Canal St-Martin district last weekend and happened upon the adjacent Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge restaurants, site of some of the recent attacks. The scene was unforgettable – the pavements were strewn with hundreds of candles, bunches of flowers, and handwritten messages of heartbreaking grief and sadness, but also resolve and defiance.

The nearby Place de la République, which has become the unofficial shrine to the events, is similarly moving. But despite these shocking events, the meeting went ahead, the delegates came, and the Parisians flocked back to their neighbourhood bars and bistros as they always have. In some ways I think what happened has made everyone even more determined that the city of light becomes synonymous with a message of hope and success, not terror.

In the end

December 12th was a historic day for the planet - the agreement signed in Paris by the 195 Parties to the UNFCCC is a global commitment to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2oC and ideally to keep temperatures to below 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement commits the world to peaking emissions as soon as possible, with the intention that by the second half of the century net emissions will be zero. While the pledges the countries have made thus far fall well short of what will be necessary to achieve this goal, the agreement puts in place a system of reviews every five years at which ambitions can only be ‘ratcheted’ upwards – that is, no country can reduce their pledge.  The agreement also commits the developed world to provide significant financial support for developing countries to help them reduce emissions and to adapt to impacts. Many have welcomed the agreement as signalling the end of the fossil fuel era, providing a huge boost of confidence for investment in clean energy. 

Of course, all we have right now is words on a piece of paper – albeit very important words. The hard work to achieve the ambition set out in the agreement is yet to come. Climate change must be tackled by individuals, by communities, by businesses, and by governments – onward and upward!


Professor Lesley Hughes is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Integrity and Development) and Distinguished Professor of Biology at Macquarie University, and a member of the Climate Change Council of Australia.


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Suggested citation
Hughes, Lesley, 'From the Paris climate talks', Evatt Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2016.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/paris-climate-talks.html>