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Australian diplomacy can help put the world on a low-carbon diet

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With summer just around the corner many Australians will be focused on dropping a few pounds to make that first appearance on the beach a little less daunting.

Like a well-toned body on Bondi Beach, the Australian government’s efforts to wean our economy off carbon pollution through the carbon price have captured the attention of the international community.

After years of indulgence and inaction these efforts have been viewed as a sign that Australia is
serious about tackling climate change.

Spare a thought, therefore, for Australia’s climate diplomats who next week will front up in Doha at the annual UN climate summit where they will reveal Australia’s carbon pollution target for the second round of the Kyoto Protocol (‘Kyoto 2’).

Remember that in the first round of the Kyoto Protocol, the Howard government adopted a weak target, whereby our pollution levels were actually allowed to increase to 108 per cent of 1990 levels. This effectively allowed Australia to drag its heels on climate change for more than a decade.

While the government has hosed down expectations of adopting a truly ambitious target under Kyoto 2, at a very minimum other countries are looking to Australia to commit to a target below 100 per cent of 1990 levels.

A target that allowed emissions to stay above 1990 levels during the next round of Kyoto would certainly call into question this Government’s resolve to do our fair share on the global stage.

With the carbon price and associated policies now in place, there is no reason why Australia cannot commit to reducing pollution levels to well below our 1990 baseline. This, combined with a firm commitment to move to a 25 per cent target as the rest of the world moves, will ensure Australia is helping to build momentum within the UN negotiations.

In Doha governments will be focused on delivering steady, incremental progress towards a more comprehensive and effective global response, which they aim to have in place by 2015.

The challenge, however, is to ensure this slow and steady approach doesn’t become an excuse for inaction between now and 2015.

Earlier this week, the World Bank – known for its conservatism and prudence – turned the spotlight on what will be the elephant in the room in Doha: the gap between what the international community says that it wants – to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius – and what the current commitments of individual countries would deliver.

In what he describes as an effort to ‘shock’ the world into action, the chief of the World Bank warned that unless countries are prepared to do more, we should begin preparing for at least four degrees of warming.

The World Bank went on to paint an alarming picture of the ‘devastating’ repercussions this level of warming would have for our economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

With the carbon price in place and bipartisan support for the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, Australia is well placed to use next week’s UN climate summit in Doha to help strengthen global ambition.

The most important action the Australian government can take in Doha is to commit to a Kyoto 2 that puts Australia’s pollution levels on a downward trajectory to well below the 1990 levels, and clearly commit to do more as other countries ramp up their efforts.

Like a successful diet, in Doha we need governments – including the Australian Government – to exhibit heroic resolve and dogged determination to get global emissions on a safer track.

Will McGoldrick, Climate Change Policy Manager, WWF-Australia. He will be attending the Doha climate summit and a non-government representative.

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