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Experts set Paris climate talks agenda

27 November 2015
Sydney academics join global conversation about climate change

Experts from across the University of Sydney unpack the issues and opportunities presented by historic climate talks in Paris.

Weather in Paris.

France is chairing and hosting COP 21. Image: freeimages.com

The governments of more than 190 nations will gather in Paris from 30 November for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21). The summit is tipped to be the most important environment-focused event since the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations and is an historic opportunity for world leaders to reach a global agreement on limiting rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Ahead of the conference, which runs from 30 November to 11 December, University of Sydney experts offered their perspectives on the key environmental, scientific, political, legal and social issues that are likely to impact on the climate change discussions.

What are the issues facing Australia?

"While all of the attention is, importantly, on emissions targets, there is no doubt that some level of climate change is locked in, and that adaptation planning will be part of the discussion," said David Schlosberg, Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute

"This is crucial for Australia, which is already at the forefront of the impacts of a changing climate and which wants to have a role in the Climate Fund that will finance many adaptation projects in the region."

For Professor Alex McBratney, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and Professor of Soil Science, the first-ever soil target presents a great opportunity for Australia.

"In response to the major aims of COP 21 'to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement', the French have focused on the soil's ability to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect – for the first time setting a global goal to promote good soil management," said Professor McBratney.

When these extreme weather events happen, you see the devastating effect on communities, the post-traumatic effects on individuals and the disruption to people's lives.
Professor Ian Hickie

According to Willem Vervoort, water resources are projected to decline in Australia, with strongly increasing declines with higher temperatures.

"Reducing the world's warming below 2C is therefore important for the viability of Australian agriculture and the survival of humans and the environment," said Vervoort, Associate Professor in Hydrology and Catchment Management in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

"However, there is still great uncertainty in these projections about the landscape, vegetation and other ecosystem responses, and it is important we identify critical thresholds – 'ecosystem tipping points'. Continued investment into monitoring systems and analysis will therefore be crucial to guide management."

Tidal power.

The effects of climate change – including rising sea level and other environmental impacts – will be discussed at COP 21. Image: freeimages.com

And coastal impacts remain a concern.

"Rising sea level is just one of a number of climate related changes that will impact our coast. We must also consider changing tides, wave climates, cyclone frequency and intensity, and extreme events, each of which can have major coastal impacts, irrespective of what sea level does," said Professor Andrew Short from the School of Geosciences.

Animals too are feeling the negative effects of manmade climate change.

"With increasing frequencies and intensities of heat waves, koalas cannot obtain sufficient water, or cool down throughout much of their range. Heatwaves have already been shown to cause massive decreases in koala populations," said Dr Mathew Crowther, Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences.

And the human health toll is just as real, said Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director for Health and Policy at the Brain and Mind Centre.

Professor Hickie told Radio National that Australians need to take climate change seriously because Australians have always lived with the impact of extreme weather events on their communities and the devastation that they can wreak.

"When these extreme weather events happen, you see the devastating effect on communities, the post-traumatic effects on individuals and the disruption to people's lives," said Professor Hickie.

Public figures in Australia should accept their responsibility and only report facts rather than beliefs. Human induced climate change is not a question of faith or common sense, it has been scientifically proved over and over.
Dr Ana Vila-Concejo

Leadership on climate needed now not later

A concern for many is that the proven scientific evidence behind climate change has been at times ignored or downplayed amid political debate.

"Climate change has been, is, and, will be the subject of scientific research. An overwhelming majority of this research shows that humans play a key role inducing climate change," said Dr Ana Vila-Concejo, Research Fellow in the School of Geosciences.

"Public figures in Australia should accept their responsibility and only report facts rather than beliefs. Human induced climate change is not a question of faith or common sense, it has been scientifically proved over and over."

Associate Professor Robyn Alders said: "Climate change has become a loaded term in Australia.  If you speak about weather variability or weather risk, people whose livelihoods depend on predictable and stable weather patterns – i.e. farmers involved with rain-fed agriculture – are seeing changes in Australia and across the globe."

"The trends towards increasing weather variability would seem to be strengthening and they are already impacting on agricultural production," said Associate Professor Alders, a Sydney Environment Institute member and Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Veterinary Science.

The Paris conference is the most anticipated climate conference since Copenhagen in 2009, but this time the groundwork has been laid for an effective treaty to address the climate crisis.
Professor Tim Stephens

Major agreement would have global effect

"Many countries now consider 2C too high and advocate a maximum global temperature increase of 1.5C. Many of the worst-affected areas comprise low- to middle-income countries," said Professor Frank Seebacher from the School of Biological Sciences.

"Increase climate warming to an average of 1.5C and the severity and geographical extent of impacts already felt, including severe weather, coral die-off, glacier melting, will also increase. The likelihood that these impacts will become critical for ecosystem function with an increase by 2C is high, so the 2C target should be considered as a last resort, not an aim in itself."

Professor Tihomir Ancev said greater focus will be needed on energy de-carbonisation.

"The process of 'de-carbonisation' of the world has already started, but only just. This involves fundamental technological and institutional changes, and we are starting to see their beginnings. The process is going to take time and the COP 21 in Paris should make sure that its decisions and messages foster the nascent future of a world much less reliant on fossil fuels," said Associate Professor Ancev from the School of Economics.

Global business leaders are ahead of government in thinking about and, increasingly, addressing climate change
Dr John Mikler

What will business leaders and legislators be watching out for?

"The Paris conference is the most anticipated climate conference since Copenhagen in 2009, but this time the groundwork has been laid for an effective treaty to address the climate crisis," said Professor Tim Stephens from the Sydney Law School.

"But there are lots of hurdles to be overcome, including what legal status the agreement will have and whether countries will have binding obligations to cut their emissions."

Major businesses will look to play their part, according to experts in the Department of Government and International Relations and Sydney Business School.

"Global business leaders are ahead of government in thinking about and, increasingly, addressing climate change. They are looking for the political will, support and leadership from governments to address the problem," said Dr John Mikler from the Department of Government and International Relations.

Christopher Wright adds: "In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, business has emerged as a key player in discussions around reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining economic growth."

"Large global corporations play a key role in the production of emissions, but are also central to the market and technological innovation required to respond to this threat," said Wright, Professor of Organisational Studies and leader of the Balanced Enterprise Research Network at the University of Sydney Business School.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)