Rio+20: A renewed sense of purpose for Australia

20 June 2012

Reuben Finighan, Project and Research Manager, The Climate Group writes of Australian political leaders' opportunity to leverage meaningful agreements at Rio+20 in light of Australia's upcoming Clean Energy Future package.

RIO DE JANEIRO: Australian political leaders and delegates will enter the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development this week with a renewed sense of purpose – and perhaps some extra leverage.

The Rio+20 conference sits on the eve of what may be the most significant sustainability milestone in Australian history: the implementation of the Australian Government’s Clean Energy Future package.

On July 1, 2012, Australia will join the ranks of the world’s many nations, states and cities that have decided that emitting CO2 should come at a price – in this case, a fixed price of AU$23 per ton, moving to a market based price in 2015.

The carbon price is the most significant landmark on Australia’s climate policy journey since the first UN Rio Earth Summit conference in 1992, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—which led to the Kyoto Protocol—was created. Although progress since the original Earth Summit has often been slow, it is a reminder that today global action is rapidly picking up in pace.

It is, in fact, nearing the tipping point.

The “green economy”

HSBC estimates clean technology markets will be worth up to US$2.7 trillion each year by 2020, and according to recent analysis from the IPO, may provide up to 60 million jobs by 2030. With momentum behind green technology markets steadily growing, the lead?up to Rio+20 has seen the UN emphasise the “global consensus on the green economy as a means to achieve sustainable development”.

Australia will promote its Clean Energy Future package as emblematic of this new push towards green growth, with the carbon price as its core tool for encouraging businesses to build expertise in these ballooning markets.

Given the high carbon?intensity of Australia’s economy, the talks are an opportunity for Australian delegates to engage with some of the challenges and contradiction within key Australian industries—mining, agriculture, and the ‘blue’ or marine economy. The mining sector faces perhaps the most significant challenges of any industry in reducing its carbon footprint. Expansion of Australian coal and coal seam gas projects can threaten both Australian agriculture and the blue economy, as recent debate around coal ports in the Great Barrier Reef has demonstrated.

Yet projects like Galaxy Resources' Mt Caitlin lithium mine, currently powered partly by solar and wind power and aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2014, demonstrate the potential for low carbon innovations to become mainstream in this sector - and show that low carbon mining need not be an oxymoron.


One broader green economy outcome that Australia will help drive – and that Rio+20 may be remembered for – is a leap forward on standardized sustainability accounting. Australia has cited its support for adoption of the UN’s ‘System of Environmental Economic Accounting’, and greater transparency and information sharing across all nations.

Australian support for a more sweeping reform—such as the Global Reporting Initiative’s proposal for standardized sustainability accounting across all major private companies around the globe—looks less likely. Nevertheless, a landmark agreement in this area will signal a strong step towards the completion of the first pillar of the Clean Revolution: measurement.

Climate risk: canary in the coal mine?

Equally important as emerging ‘green economy’ opportunities are newly emerging challenges.

For Australia these include the growing cost of climate?related natural disasters: in the ten years since the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, Australia has borne the brunt of unprecedented fires, floods, droughts and cyclones. With climate scientists calling Australia the ‘canary in the coal mine’, this string of disasters comes as an early warning.

One of the casualties of these disasters has been food security, with some of Australia’s most important crops—such as wheat, sugar cane and bananas—suffering massive losses. Food security is a common thread through Australia’s submissions on agriculture and the blue economy, and in both it encourages better integration of sustainability into decision?making frameworks, crisis modelling, planning and prevention, and raising productivity to avoid the need to encroach further on ecosystems. These measures must be accompanied by strong cuts in Australian and global emissions if they are to succeed.

Opportunities for Australia to lead

With climate change impacts mounting and CO2 emissions rising even more rapidly than expected, Australia has called the 2010?2020 period “the critical decade” for climate change. This strong language ups the ante for the Rio+20 event, on the anniversary of the conference that produced the UN Convention on Climate Change, to achieve meaningful outcomes that can turn our trajectory around.

The critical decade calls for critical action. Let’s make this a Rio to remember.

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