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Australia’s Dirty Post-COP21 Affair with Renewables

On 29 June, key civil society figures published an open letter to Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, imploring him to put Australia on the path to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible in order to improve the nation’s chances of saving the Great Barrier Reef.

Certainly, the co-signatories are likely to have more luck with Mr Turnbull than they might have had with his predecessor, Tony Abbott. Turnbull has already done his best to reverse the worst of the damage wreaked by a series of counterproductive energy and climate policies implemented by the man who held office before him.

Abbott, a notorious climate change sceptic, undercut efforts to push climate targets at every turn, leading the chief executive of the Climate Institute, John Conner, to brand Australia’s targets as “pathetically inadequate” and note that they bestow upon Australia the dubious honor of being “the highest per capita emitter in the [developed] world.”

And not only did he repeal the carbon tax, he also – in a statement that had both environmentalists and female voters spitting out their drinks – claimed this was his greatest achievement for women while in office, women, of course, being “particularly focused on the household budget.’

By contrast, Turnbull is emerging as more of a champion for the environment. He has taken positive steps such as setting up a $1 billion fund for renewable energy investments. But is he doing enough? Australians don’t seem to think so. Greenpeace doesn’t think so either. In a damning statement, David Ritter, the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said “it is as if the onion eater may have gone, but the bad breath of climate denialism still lingers across the government.” And indeed, lukewarm commitment to tackling climate change is unlikely to impress the Australian electorate. A recent Lowy Institute poll on Australian Attitudes to The World found that support for taking action to curb global warming “even if it involves significant costs” was at its highest since 2008, up 17% to 53%. Yet bizarrely, neither the freshly-minted government nor the opposition seems particularly keen to nail the color green to its mast as it seeks to win votes.

And this is a missed opportunity, as there is still much more Australia can, should and – in the case of the electorate – wants to be doing. Switching over to renewable energies is an obvious step it can take, and indeed, it will be in good company if it does so. Following last year’s COP21 agreement in Paris, many more nations and companies are recognizing that using clean energy isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s often also the economically sensible thing to do. Last month, Google signed a deal to buy clean energy from two new wind farms that will be built in Norway and Sweden in order to power its data centers in Europe. And even the famously gas guzzling US is adopting green habits. The US Department of Defense is the second-largest buyer of renewable electricity through deals meant to lock in long-term supply and provide incentives to developers of wind and solar projects, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which has tracked more than 600 corporate power-purchase agreements (PPA). Similarly, in many places in the US, renewable power is becoming cheap enough to compete with conventional sources.

Indeed, even countries blessed with oil in abundance are coming to realize that the fossil fuel party cannot last forever. Even though it is thought to have enough oil to last another 100 years, the UAE’s future-gazing ‘national agenda,’ plotting the country’s intended development until 2021 is very clear about the need to develop sustainable energy solutions for the future. Morocco, a country more used to importing its energy, is hoping to become a little more self-sufficient by building the biggest concentrated solar power station in the world. Kazakhstan, which is set to host next year’s Expo 2017 Astana, has also shifted the focus of the event to renewables with a theme of “Future Energy.” The expo is expected to gather participants from over 90 countries and 15 international organizations to discuss ways to ensure safe access to energy while also reducing CO2 emissions.

COP21, then, is already beginning to leave a lasting legacy. After years of lobbying and advocacy work on the part of environmental groups, policymakers and the business community are finally embracing constructive climate policies.

Even though the motivation to make changes has more to do with profits and pragmatism than a real desire to “make a difference,” for this generation and those to come, the shift in thinking is a step in the right direction. But, like Malcolm Turnbull’s actions writ large on the global stage, it is still not quite enough. More ambitious measures are needed. As observers pointed out at the end of the COP21 talks, the target of limiting global warming to 1.5° (if that is even met) will likely not be enough to prevent the damage we have in store. Certainly, the COP21 is no panacea to the world’s issues. And there is still the problem of human nature. Short-term gratification is always a little more enticing than long-term gain. As James Hansen, a scientist at Columbia University said after seeing the terms of COP21 “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.”