What I didn’t expect on the first morning of the Marrakech, Morocco, climate talks was that it would be cold and wet. But that didn’t dampen the festive opening of this the 22nd annual meeting of nations party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The festivities were because it was also the first meeting since last December’s Paris agreement, under which, unlike its predecessor the Kyoto Protocol, all countries committed to make contributions to help achieve global net zero emissions, limit global warming to 1.5-2.o degrees, and to build greater climate resilience.
Normally staid diplomats were invited to wave LED-lit images of the sun at the centre stage on which luminaries gathered around an inflated planet with a Mr Happy face upon it. Members of a percussion band beat their drums as they danced among the assembled diplomats and politicians from over 190 nations.
In adjacent purpose-built massive tents, many countries were setting up not just their offices but also pavilions to showcase their efforts, sell their technologies and attract investors. These are meetings not just of diplomats, but also of leading businesses and investors that come to these gatherings to track progress and lobby politicians. China and the US had high-tech displays. Japan had an electrified track with model very-fast trains and trams coursing past homes with solar roofs and hills bedecked with wind turbines. India bedazzled with a Bollywood-style glitzy presentation. Korea, Thailand, and European and African nations and more had traditional and interactive electronic displays strutting their stuff.
It is easy to get cynical at such displays but, as well as the real business interests at stake, it has been a gruelling multi-decadal journey of grinding diplomacy to get to this point. Bitter divisions and recriminations had marked the last effort to get a universal agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. There we saw what international shirt-fronting really looked like as the US and China butted up against each other, and prime minister Kevin Rudd famously described the latter as rat fornicators — or words to that effect.
Since 2009, reassessment of national interests in climate action and pollution reduction, by them and others, led the US and China to form a durable and active diplomatic partnership. Mounting investor and financial regulator unease at growing climate costs and the increasing affordability of cleaner technologies also helped tip the scales in Paris for an outcome that, though not perfect, is worthy of celebration.
As the sun broke through in the afternoon, negotiators were getting down to the hard work of creating the more detailed rules and processes that will drive the higher-level commitments made in the Paris agreement. The aim is to develop common rules for transparency and accountability, to be in place by 2018, as some of the machinery to ratchet up action and ambition agreed to in Paris kicks in. This won’t be easy. Among other challenges, it will test the willingness of developing countries to allow others to review or assess their efforts.
And what of Australia? Our representatives are keeping a more discrete shopfront with an office tucked away at the very back of our hall. But Australia will be in the spotlight on Saturday when recent efforts and promises under the Kyoto Protocol will be tested under processes, for now only limited to developed economies, but which serve a model for all under the Paris agreement.
The little ray of sunshine I did get this morning was that the cross-party parliamentary committee considering the Paris agreement had tabled its report recommending Australia join the 100 countries who have ratified to date. This clears the way for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or Minister for Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg to formally do so when they arrive next week.
Australia’s ratification would be welcome, but the work of developing credible policies to help achieve the net zero emissions objective lies ahead. Fortunately, the government has long committed to review climate policies and to consider a post-2030 target in 2017.
Here’s where the sun really needs to shine in, because Australia and other countries will need far greater actions than those promised before Paris if they are to really help achieve the objectives of the agreement they forged in the French capital.
The latest independent assessment released on the eve of the Marrakech meeting had the world still heading to a much more dangerous, costly and warmer world than that committed to in Paris. That assessment also found that Australia’s current 2030 commitment would result in only Saudi Arabia and Russia being higher in pollution per person. That’s a risky position when most other countries are pursuing their, and frankly our, interests in building a more resilient, net zero emissions global economy as soon as possible.
*John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute, an independent research organisation, which last week released its guide to the Marrakech Talks COP22: Getting down to getting to zero.