Published: 30/11/2015

The recent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) saw 195 countries pledge to keep temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. Representatives and leaders from around the globe discussed the framework for how to achieve this and for providing regular reporting on how each country is progressing. The agreement has been described as “the single most important collective action for addressing climate change” and is expected to take effect in 2020. The 195 countries that participated in the agreement represent over 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the positives to come from COP21 is that America and China appear to be working together with a far greater commitment to reaching an outcome. India (the 3rd largest emitter after China and US) was also on board with the agenda. This helped soothe the contentious debate that the world’s largest emitting countries should shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for climate change and support poorer nations in making the necessary changes to reduce emissions and quit coal.

There is no doubt climate change hits the poorest nations very hard and the World Bank estimates that extreme weather and rising seas could drive over 100 million more people into poverty by 2030. The threshold of 1.5 degrees was locked into the treaty at the COP21 after a concerted push by small island nations who said their very existence would still be threatened if the agreement only limited global warming to 2 degrees. Rising sea levels, coupled with intense storm cycles exacerbated by global warming, are contaminating the water table and polluting agricultural land, destroying assets and livelihood. Crop yields are continuously reducing, and are struggling keep up with the population growth on the small islands. These harsh conditions combined with rising sea level are making the islands uninhabitable and pushing some islanders to seek asylum as climate change refugees. However, climate change refugee status is still not widely recognised. A recent test case in New Zealand turned a family from the Pacific Islands away on the grounds that asylum is only granted to those being persecuted, primarily as a result of political and internal unrest. Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop says the government recognises that Pacific neighbours are vulnerable and intends to help these island countries access funding through Australia’s new role in the Global Green Climate Fund. The fund was set up to help islanders rebuild and develop sustainable ways to cope with climate change.

The other highlight from COP21 was the broader support received from the private sector. Major corporations and financial institutions made commitments to decrease their carbon footprints, engage in sustainable resource management and finance climate change action. In fact, the private sector is one of the largest sources of climate finance. In 2014, the private sector funded USD$243 billion in climate-related investments such as renewable energy investment in emerging markets. However, in return the private sector seeks strong policy signals from respective governments to create a stable environment for their climate related investment to thrive. In Australia, we witnessed how the uncertainty over the Renewable Energy Target (RET) stalled the renewable energy industry between 2011 and 2014. It wasn’t until the Government confirmed it’s RET position in May 2015 (along with the election of Turnbull) that the sector’s confidence and investment activity resumed. It remains to be seen following from the COP21 what policy changes will be implemented in Australia and if any pressure will be applied to closing down coal-fired power station

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