Climate Change—the international approach

Kate Loynes, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key Issue
Australia was one of over 170 parties to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change in April 2016. Under the Agreement, most countries have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the aim to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2 °C.
The Government needs to table the Paris Agreement in Parliament before Australia can ratify.

Australia has participated in international climate negotiations since the 1980s and has had a domestic climate change target since 1990.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement on climate change, developed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Protocol encourages 192 parties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, with many developed nations having binding emissions reduction targets.

Under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, meetings are held annually. At these Conferences of the Parties (COPs), decisions are made to promote the implementation of the UNFCCC and Protocol. Major meetings have included the disappointing COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, as well as COP18 in Doha, Qatar in 2012, where the Kyoto Protocol was extended to 2020 with a second commitment period (the Doha amendment).

The first period of the Kyoto Protocol ran from 2008 to 2012. Australia met and exceeded its first period target of 108% of 1990 emissions levels by 2012. For the second period, 2013–2020, Australia has a target of 99.5% of 1990 emissions levels by 2020 (equivalent to 5% below 2000 emission levels by 2020).

In December 2015, the Prime Minister announced that Australia would ratify the second period of the Kyoto Protocol (as established by the Doha Amendment). Australia’s ratification will need to follow the same process as the Paris Agreement, outlined below. However, the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2020 and will be replaced by the Paris Agreement.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was agreed in 2015 by 175 parties. The aim of the agreement is to keep global warming to ‘well below’ 2 °C, and strive to limit warming to 1.5 °C.

The Paris Agreement also includes a global stocktake every five years to assess international progress, a ‘ratchet’ mechanism to increase emission reduction targets over time and an aim to peak global emissions as soon as possible.

Each party nominated an emissions reduction target. Australia proposed a target of 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030. In comparison, the European Union pledged a target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The United States (US) nominated a target of 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Comparisons are complicated by the use of different baseline years, but Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target has been described as less ambitious than that of most developed nations. The Climate Change Authority recommended a 30% reduction from 2000 emissions levels by 2025.

The Paris Agreement will come into effect when at least 55 parties that make up at least 55% of global emissions have ratified the Agreement. As of writing, 22 nations which emit 1% of global emissions have ratified. It is predicted that another 32 countries, including Australia, China and the US will ratify in 2016, covering 53% of global emissions.

Ratifying the Paris Agreement

Former Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt signed the Paris Agreement in April 2016. Signing expresses Australia’s intent to be bound by the terms of the Agreement. Australia must now ratify the Agreement, confirming its participation.

For ratification, a treaty is tabled in Parliament with a National Interest Analysis, which explains the impact of the treaty on Australia’s national interest. The Analysis for the Paris Agreement is currently being prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Environment and Energy.

Major treaties must be tabled for at least 20 joint sitting days to allow parliamentary scrutiny, including by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. From this point, the Prime Minister can recommend the Governor-General approve the ratification of the Agreement.

There are 23 joint sitting days scheduled for the rest of 2016. If Australia is aiming to ratify the Paris Agreement this year, as Minister Hunt stated in April, then the government will need to table the Agreement in the first week of sitting.The Library has been advised that the Doha Amendment will be tabled at the same time as the Paris Agreement.

The next COP, which will discuss the Paris Agreement, is in November this year.

Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol on ozone-damaging gases does not directly address climate change, but ozone-damaging gases contribute to global warming. The 1987 Montreal Protocol binds 196 nations to reduce the emission of ozone-damaging gases, commonly used in fridges, foam and industrial applications. These gases thin the ozone layer, allowing more ultraviolet (UV) light to pass through the atmosphere. Increased exposure to UV light is linked to an increase in skin cancer.

Australia was one of the first nations to ratify the Montreal Protocol, and has met or exceeded all of its targets to date. In 2016, scientists reported the first signs of healing in the ozone hole over Antarctica.

In April 2016, the Government responded to a review of Australia’s actions on reducing the emission of ozone-damaging gases under the Montreal Protocol. The review made a number of recommendations, which the Government will implement and aims to have in place by the start of January 2018. Amendments to implement these proposed changes will need to be introduced into this parliament to meet the 2018 deadline.

Further reading

Climate Change Authority (CCA), Final report on Australia’s future emissions reduction targets, CCA, July 2015.

S. Yeo, ‘Timeline: the Paris agreement’s ‘ratchet mechanism’’, Carbon Brief, January 2016.


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