A total of 175 countries gathered at the United Nations in New York overnight to sign the The Paris Agreement that was brokered in December last year.
The meeting marked an international push to legally bring the climate change agreement into force. It is the largest number of signatories ever garnered for the opening day of a UN agreement.
The Paris Agreement was widely regarded as 'historic'; the best possible global agreement to curb climate change and slow the pace of global warming. But with great promise comes great responsibility to act. And in the months since, Australia's trajectories are quickly dimming.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt spoke with ABC radio on Saturday from New York. He said Australia has signed the agreement and will immediately begin the process of ratifying it. According to Hunt, Australia is on track to "meet and beat" its emissions reductions targets set out under the agreement.
At home, environmental activists painted in white staged a sombre protest over the plight of Australia's dying reefs. And Cabinet Ministers continue to question the science of climate change.
SO, WHAT IS IT?
The Paris Agreement was signed on December 11, 2015 by 195 nations worldwide. After two weeks of negotiations and word-wrangling at the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, diplomats agreed to a global climate change accord that sets a cap on global warming at "well below" 2 degrees Celsius and an aspirational 1.5 degrees. The end goal? Reaching global net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
"The agreement says we are going to limit pollution, and it outlines our targets moving forward," CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation Kelly O'Shanassy told The Huffington Post Australia.
"Global warming is a global problem and it needs a global solution. The agreement was the first critical step."
The accord was the world's first comprehensive climate agreement to commit all countries to cutting carbon emissions. Signatories were tasked with preparing, maintaining and publishing their own greenhouse gas reduction targets that should be greater than current targets and should “reflect the highest possible ambition”. It is partly legally binding and partly voluntary, providing for five-yearly reviews that will assess whether countries are meeting their commitments.
O'Shanassy, who attended the conference, said there were tears of relief when the Paris Agreement was finalised -- but many pointed to the task ahead.
"It was a wonderful experience to be there on the day of the signing. It was really the vulnerable, low-lying nations that pushed it over the line.
"At 1.5 degrees and above, they lose their homes. At 1.5 degrees and above, we lose the Great Barrier Reef... we’re already seeing this and we haven’t even go to those levels of warming yet. If we don’t get on to reducing pollution fast, it is just a piece of paper.”
Australia was one of 195 parties to commit to the agreement last December. It will come into force as soon as 55 countries responsible for 55 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases have ratified the accord.
The target date for the agreement to begin is 2020, but momentum is building to ensure the accord enters into force much earlier.
IS AUSTRALIA ON TRACK?
In the months since the Paris Agreement, Australia has traipsed through two of the hottest months ever recorded and an El Nino event that saw localised warming reach higher than 1.5 degrees. And we have seen the devastating results – with 93 percent of Australians reefs now impacted by coral bleaching due to warming oceans.
“We are seeing the impacts in nature of global warming right before our eyes. And yet the ambitions of what we signed up to in Paris are not achievable within the current suite of the Australian government’s climate policies,” O’Shanassy said.
Australia’s current pollution reduction targets sits at a 26 to 28 percent emission reduction target by 2030. Up against global standards this is “very weak”.
“If all countries’ targets were as weak as Australia’s, we would be tracking towards warming of three to four degrees,” she said.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the Government’s target are one of the highest emissions reductions targets on a per capita basis in the world.
"We beat our Kyoto 1 targets. We're now clearly on track to meet and beat our Kyoto 2 targets and our Paris 2030 targets are strong and ambitious and they have been welcomed and hailed," he told ABC television.
“What they don’t tell you is that we will still be one of the highest emitters per capita even after those reductions occurred because they are currently so high,” said O’Shanassy.
According to O’Shanassy, the Australian government is purporting a “sustained attack” on renewable energy in Australia, through an 88 percent reduction in investment in 2014 and a weakened Renewable Energy Target.
“By doing all of this, our government has said we are open to business for coal and closed for business for renewables. The market has responded and pollution is increasing.”
Greens Deputy Leader and climate change spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters describes the government’s track record as “woeful”.
“Their actions are flying in the face of commitments made at the conference. We have seen the cutting of the renewable energy targets, the slashing of The Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the continued approval of coal mines," she told Huffpost Australia.
“The government has been ignoring the science and probing their targets.”
The government has made a commitment to ratify the Paris Agreement this year if re-elected.
For O’Shanassy, climate policy -- and all scenarios that limit global warming -- must point to a clean energy transformation.
“What we need is to phase out our existing coal plants and replace those with renewable energy and that has to be done carefully and in a planned way,” she said.
“We need to make sure there is not an energy disruption and we need to take care of the workers and communities in those coal mining areas.”
“A lot of modelling shows that can by and large be achieved by 2030.”
The Australian Greens have developed a transition plan to achieve 90 percent renewable energy by this date and phase out fossil fuel power stations with a $1 billion Clean Energy Transition Fund to be overseen by a new government agency, Renew Australia.
The plan proposes an immediate ban on new coal and gas as well as targets to rapidly reduce Australia’s climate pollution with a 60 to 80 percent cut by 2030.
“We want to implement pollution reduction targets based on what science is telling us and to speed up that transition to renewable energy,” Senator Waters said.
“This is the defining issue of our generation. The fact that many members of parliament are still sceptical about the science is deeply disturbing.
"We are going to put global warming at the front and centre of our campaign this federal election.”