The Paris climate agreement, which came into force on November 4, is just the first step. Photo: AP


Those warning of climate change impacts have been likened to Chicken Littles, scuttling around, warning the sky is falling. That worry, it turns out, is based on fact too. Cooling in the stratosphere is causing it to shrink, lowering that layer by "a number of kilometres", NASA noted recently...

The state of our climate in 2016

Australia is already experiencing an increase in extreme conditions from climate change - and it's projected to get worse...


Our burning of fossil fuels and emissions of other greenhouse gases mean more of the earth's heat that would have been radiated back to space – warming the stratosphere on the way – is being trapped at lower levels of the atmosphere.

"It's like when you insulate your roof – your house warms but your attic will get a bit cooler," says Steven Sherwood, a climate scientist at the University of NSW. Those "attic" temperatures have cooled 2-3 degrees since the 1960s.

To be sure, the shrinking stratosphere is only partly climate-change related, with the emergence of ozone holes the other main factor. Still, "it's all about the human impact on the climate system", Professor Sherwood says.

That impact has lately been on full display as rising background temperatures – with an El Nino boost – drove 2014, 2015, and now 2016 to record-breaking warmth.

graph showing global warming

As the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO stated recently, Australia can expect more severe heatwaves, extreme fire weather and intense rain events as the planet warms further.

Our coral reefs are particularly threatened, with widespread mortality of the northern Great Barrier Reef after a severe oceanic heatwave, seen as a sign of what's to come.

Last December, almost 200 nations decided to act to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris climate agreement aims to keep global temperatures increases to no more than 2 degrees – or about 1 degree more than has already occurred in the past century.

Marrakech, Morocco, will host COP22, the follow-up summit to Paris from November 7.

Marrakech, Morocco, will host COP22, the follow-up summit to Paris from November 7. 

The Paris accord came into force on Friday, which is a record pace for such a global deal. There's a chance the Turnbull government will announce Australia's ratification – joining the 94 nations to have done so – at the follow-up climate summit that begins on Monday in Marrakech, Morocco.

The 12-day gathering will likely focus on how national ambitions can be raised to close the so-called emissions gap. According to the United Nations, the Paris emission-reduction pledges fall at least 25 per cent short of what's needed by 2030.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressing the Paris climate summit last year.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressing the Paris climate summit last year. Photo: AP

Australia's promise to cut 2005-level carbon pollution 26-28 per cent by 2030 will also come under scrutiny in Morocco with a range of questions already lodged about the nation's rising trajectory. (That assumes a shock Donald Trump victory in Tuesday's US presidential elections hasn't diverted all attention stateside.)

The Turnbull government will argue Australia's 2030 goal is one of the most ambitious efforts in terms of per capita emissions.

Renewable energy investment has now topped spending on new fossil fuel power plants.

Renewable energy investment has now topped spending on new fossil fuel power plants. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Even so, a lack of action over the past couple of decades and the dominance of coal in the electricity sector mean Australia is still on course to remain the third-worst polluter among G20 nations by 2030.

graph showing G20 country commitments

The global emissions reduction goals will depend in large part on the acceleration of the take-up of renewable energy. 

The world added half a million new solar panels each day last year, a pace that will quicken to 30,000 an hour - or more than 700,000 panels a day - over the next five years, the International Energy Agency said recently. New wind turbines will go up at the rate 2.5 an hour.

The agency lifted its overall forecast for clean energy by 2021 to account for 28 per cent of electricity by then. Australia's Renewable Energy Target is aiming for about a 23 per cent share for hydro, wind, solar and other renewables by 2020 - a goal possibly out of reach as shifting policies and patchy political support continue to rattle investor confidence.

The Turnbull government's seriousness in tackling climate change, though, won't be tested until its planned policy review in 2017, which may include lifting its 2030 target made a year ago in Paris.

According to the Environment Department, Australia's commitments requires the elimination of 900 million tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions between 2020 and 2030. (Emissions rose 1.1 per cent in 2015 to 535.7 million tonnes.)

However, most of the planned abatement has little if any policy backing to achieve it. (See chart below).

For instance, improving energy efficiency is supposed to deliver about a third of the planned savings.

Despite phenomenal returns on investment,that were recognised last week when the Baird government committed NSW to net-zero emissions by 2050 the government has so far earmarked just $18m for a national energy productivity plan.

The Abbott government shuttered the successful Energy Efficiency Opportunities despite costing an estimated minus-$95 for every tonne of CO2 abated.

The Emissions Reduction Fund and its related safeguard mechanism – which may morph into a carbon price – is supposed to account for an even larger chunk of savings.

The existing ERF, which may splurge the bulk of its remaining $800 million at an auction next week, has a dubious record.

govt estimates on emissions reduction graph

A recent report by The Green Institute found about $1 billion of the $1.7 billion ERF money spent so far had gone into conserving mulga-dominated areas of south-west Queensland and western NSW on land that might not have been cleared anyway.

Moreover, about a quarter of the land sector abatement has a "permanence" of just 25 years.

That sort of performance is hardly like to impress those nations meeting in Marrakech to press for carbon neutrality – if not negative emissions – by mid-century.

Without that transition, it's likely we won't avoid that sky falling further – and many other anticipated climate-linked calamities from global warming.

Peter Hannam

Peter Hannam

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