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Climate Change: Paris Will Be Different

02/12/2015 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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An artwork entitled 'One Heart One Tree' by artist Naziha Mestaoui is displayed on the Eiffel tower as part of the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

This week more than 190 countries will meet in Paris to nut out a global agreement on climate change. You've heard it all before, right? World leaders meet but it's all talk and no action.

But Paris will be different. In fact, it has achieved much before the conference has even begun.

The structure of the Paris climate conference is quite different from previous conferences. Countries have had to submit in advance their national plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China and the US, previously laggards and the world's largest polluters, announced their plans together a year in advance, driving significant momentum.

Their commitments are serious, too, and represent substantial departures from their previous stances. For instance, China will build more zero emissions energy, like solar and wind, in the next 15 years than their entire existing coal fleet.

Why is China making such a substantial commitment?

There are at least three reasons. First, the country is choking on air pollution from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and climate change is beginning to bite in the form of increasing temperatures, droughts and sea level rise. And future climate impacts could include a 30 percent decrease in the amount of water discharged from major rivers in northern China; reduced rice yields, especially in eastern China; and Shanghai could experience more intense and frequent floods.

The second reason is economic: China was number one on the leader board for attracting investment in clean energy in 2014, at US$ 89.5 billion (up 32 percent from 2013).

The third is geopolitical. As one Chinese businessman said to me recently: "Energy is the blood to the muscle of the economy. In the 20th century the blood was oil, in the 21st century it will be solar and wind and China will be number one in both."

It is not just China that has spotted the immense opportunity in the renewable energy revolution. With rapidly falling costs, investment in renewable energy has increased dramatically. The price of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules has dropped 75 percent and onshore wind power has fallen 30 percent over the past six years.

Renewables have not only become more affordable, new wind and solar plants now compete directly with new fossil fuel plants on price and cost in many parts of the world. With investment have come new jobs. More than 7.7 million people are now employed globally in the renewable energy sector, an increase of more than 4 million jobs since 2009. Plummeting costs and increasing jobs mean that today there is a very strong economic case for scaling up renewable energy.

The economics of renewable energy are even more favourable when you consider the substantive commitments to renewable energy that countries are increasingly putting on the table. Since the last major climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the number of countries with renewable energy targets has doubled.

Eight of the 10 largest emitters have announced plans to scale up renewable energy in the lead up to the Paris climate conference. This will represent nearly a four-fold increase in renewable energy generating capacity by 2030.

Domestic policies that encourage renewable energy are the real work of tackling climate change. It is the action rather than talk. There are now numerous examples of countries, states and cities being largely powered by renewable energy as a consequence of favourable policies.

Recently the Head of the UNFCCC Christina Figueres commented that "international negotiations don't cause change, they mark it." Paris will mark a significant upswing in global action on climate change and will drive further momentum into the future.

Will it be enough? No.

Action is coming late in the game and climate change is already upon us. For instance, in Australia, hot days have doubled in the past 50 years, heatwaves have become hotter, longer and occur more often and extreme bushfire weather has increased. We have entered an era of climate consequences.

Meanwhile, all G20 countries continue to subsidise fossil fuels, collectively spending an estimated US$452 billion annually -- four times the subsidies for renewable energy.

Absurdly, many countries maintain a schizophrenic approach of implementing policies to tackle climate change while providing public subsidies to fossil fuels, which is driving sea level rise and more extreme weather. All governments must confront this devastating inconsistency and end subsidies to fossil fuels.

Stronger action is required to tackle climate change. The Paris climate conference is a building block and is creating significant momentum for future action. But countries, cities, towns, businesses and citizens will need to continue to ratchet up efforts.

It is important to remember that global meetings are not actually where the action happens. The action is happening in towns and cities around the world and in the board rooms of big business and major financial institutions, which are swinging the pendulum towards a fossil-free world, and which will gather even more intensity after the Paris climate talks.

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