A damming report written by a former senior negotiator has castigated the Abbott government for its stance on international climate talks, saying the Coalition had thrown away influence and momentum, and could lose the opportunity to frame an agreement that could favour Australia.
The Lowy Institute report – written by Howard Bamsey, Australia’s former special envoy on climate change, and Kath Rowley, the general manager of reviews at the Climate Change Authority – says climate change negotiations should be at the top of Australia’s priorities. If not, Australia risks losing the ability to influence the shape of a new global climate treaty that could have major consequences for its own economy.
The report comes at a critical time. Australia’s Abbott government is using the surplus credits secured by the Howard government’s dedicated negotiating effort nearly two years ago, but shows no interest in negotiating similar outcomes which could be critical to Australia’s economic health in coming decades.
Countries are now beginning to make pledges in the lead-up to the climate talks in Paris, where an agreement that can provide a platform for limiting average global warming to 2°C – a target agreed way back in Copenhagen – is expected to be drawn, and include developing countries.
But in the past two years, since the election of the Abbott government, Australia’s track record in the negotiations has been poor. In some cases it has been non-existent.
In Poland, Australia did not even bother to send a minister, and its negotiators appears to do a complete about-face in their positioning, causing much consternation to other countries. The international community was stunned that Australia had decided to scrap its carbon price, having viewed as one of the leading and best conceived schemes in the world.
In Lima, Australia’s position was more nuanced, but its delegation was only 14-strong, little more than half that of previous delegations.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop only managed to travel after winning a fierce debate with the Prime Minister’s office and even then was “chaperoned” by trade minister Andre Robb, a climate sceptic.
“A year and much influence have been forgone,” Bamsey and Rowley write in their analysis. Yet they say these negotiations are of huge importance for Australia.
“They will shape the actions countries take, the resulting economic opportunities and risks for Australia, and, ultimately, the extent of climate risks and impacts the nation faces.
“Few if any other international negotiations invoke such consequences. In no other multilateral process are Australia’s interests so distinctive.
“The UN negotiations and related intergovernmental activities should be in the very top category of the Government’s and DFAT’s priorities.
The authors say that Australia’s delegation team needs to be bigger, with more dedicated staff.
They also note the success Australia achieved at Kyoto, when the then Coalition government of John Howard sent a strong team led by then environment minister Robert Hill.
Back then, the authors noted, Australia achieved an extraordinary outcome, that allowed it to increase emissions by 8 per cent – an outcome many countries thought was far too generous.
This was crucial, because Australia’s emissions actually average 130 per cent of their 1990 levels in the critical four-year period to 2012, the end of the first Kyoto period. It was only the generous land use provisions that allowed Australia to claim that it had beaten its 108 per cent target (it ended up with 103 per cent – and intends to use that surplus as a credit to its current 5 per cent reduction target from 2000 levels by 2020).
“Nobody doubted the weight of Australia’s presence and influence,” the authors note. “It was this determined, comprehensive, and informed approach that led to acceptance of Australia’s nominated Kyoto Protocol target (108 per cent).”
Indeed, a key part of that negotiation was in talks about land use. This will once again be important in the lead up to Paris, but some observers noted that Australia’s position was being sidelined in Lima, a result they suggested that reflected the country’s diminished influence since it downgraded its priorities on climate change.
Ultimately, Australia’s diminished influence could have an impact on its economy, in ways that the Australian public, and the Australian media, did not understand. (Indeed, RenewEconomy has been the only Australian media at the last three climate talks, Doha, Warsaw and Lima).
“Very slowly, the tide is beginning to turn against the model of development that relies on unfettered exploitation of natural resources,” the authors write.
“Increasingly, national leaders are committing their governments to strategies that aim for strong growth with much lower natural resource inputs (and consequently, lower pollution outputs).
“Terms such as green growth and the circular economy are finding their way into the mainstream — although this would hardly be evident to consumers of Australian media.
“These concepts and the economic opportunities they present are feeding back into the negotiations in a positive way and narrowing traditional divisions. What has been exclusively a burden-sharing debate is taking on a more complex and optimistic tone.
“Australia currently ranks low on global indices of low-carbon competitiveness, but has the endowments and other factors to improve rapidly, and to contribute to a virtuous circle between the global economy and the negotiations.”