Published on ABC The Drum on 5 January 2012
It’s not very often that we hear positive stories about climate change.
Our news feeds are normally filled up with messages about increasing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing ice sheets and extreme weather events. It is a scary reality and one that has a real impact on those who care about and campaign on climate change.
As we hear more and more about increasing emissions and the failure of policy makers to address the problem, it becomes harder for climate activists to take an optimistic approach to climate campaigning. I have often seen this result in despair and withdrawal by climate activists, who see no real hope for any real change in the future.
Yet, despite the negative stories over the past year, there have been a number of real climate wins that can provide hope to climate campaigners worldwide.
2011 brought with it a range of victories on climate change – stories that whilst still not perfect brought with them some indication that we may actually be on a trajectory to a low carbon future.
Obviously many people are talking about the climate conference in Durban, with mix reviews of the success of the meeting. Whilst it is pretty clear that Durban definitely didn’t achieve anywhere near enough to tackle the issue of climate change seriously, it was clear that the pressure on delegates at the conference resulted in some clear progress that was much better than expected (although that is more a factor of lowered expectations than hugely successful outcomes).
However, it is when you look beyond the Durban Conference that we can see major advancements in climate policy.
First, of course, is that passage of the carbon tax in Australia. Whilst Tony Abbott may like to make this out to be a negative fact, Australia’s carbon tax is, along with the European emissions trading scheme, the most comprehensive carbon pricing scheme in the world. The reverberations of its passage have already been felt, with Al Gore noting after the passage of the tax:
Australia’s Parliament has put the nation’s first carbon price into law. With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis.
Yet, it isn’t just Australia that has announced a carbon pricing scheme over the past year. In the middle of the year, China announced that it would implement a range of emissions trading schemes by 2013. The initial schemes would be rolled on a trial basis in 2013, with the scheme to be implemented nationally by 2015.
At around the same time, California formally adopted its emissions trading scheme, which was agreed upon in December last year. The state, which is the world’s eighth largest economy, has agreed to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This scheme is the most comprehensive of any in the United States and is seen as a potential model for others around the country.
Also in the US, whilst the announcement has been delayed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has vowed to continue with the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in absence of a national price on carbon. This decision was bolstered mid-way through the year as the US Supreme Court upheld the ability of the EPA making regulations in this way. The announcement of the scale of the regulations is due next year.
In Europe, construction began on one of the biggest investments in renewable energy around the world; a project called DESERTEC. The first installation of DESERTEC will begin next year, with a massive solar installation being constructed in Morocco. After its completion, the project is designed to meet 15 per cent of Europe’s energy needs by 2050.
Yet, many of these policy achievements are unlikely to be met by one of the biggest, yet least talked about climate achievements of the year. Around the world, reports have been released that solar energy is on the move to reach grid parity with coal and other energy sources over the coming years.
For example, solar photovoltaic power has now reached grid parity in all states in Australia apart from Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania. These sorts of statistics have been seen around the world, with reports of imminent grid parity in the United States, China and many other countries. Such a move will mean that solar will soon become a cheaper alternative to coal, removing the cost argument from those who resist the implementation of renewable energies.
Last, but certainly not least, we have also seen a reinvigoration of many parts of the climate movement that have struggled after the Copenhagen conference. Whilst of course, there have been the large campaigns in Australia around the carbon tax, the most positive signs have been in the United States. Here, what was becoming a very fragmented movement has begun to coalesce around opposition to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This campaign, which has involved massive protests and sit-ins in the White House, saw almost immediate success, with Barack Obama announcing a delay in the pipeline to further study the environmental impacts of its construction. Whilst the pipeline is still in play, this success has boosted the climate movement, with big plans for continued campaigning following on from this success.
These victories are all really big, new, and exciting developments that are showing the impact the climate movement is having on the community, Government and business alike. Of course this isn’t all that has happened and the news is not all good.
We still face what is known as the gigatonne gap between the emissions cuts required to avoid dangerous climate change and the cuts promised around the world. Yet, what these actions continue to show is that with enough campaigning and community pressure success is possible.
For those of us who find climate change frightening we should take some heart out of the achievements of 2011 and build on these to achieve more in 2012.