Australia gets out the wrecking ball, again, in international climate talks

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Morrison government takes out the wrecking ball for crucial and complex climate talks in Bangkok to side with US and Japan in a dramatic attempt to weaken climate finance obligations, and upsets Pacific nations with its intransigence.

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Well, that didn’t take long. Little more than a week after the elevation of Scott Morrison to the prime minister’s office, Australia has returned to the bad old ways that were a feature of Tony Abbott’s engagement on climate change, and John Howard’s involvement with Kyoto.

In separate arena this week, Australia has been accused of attempting to water down the language of the Pacific Islands Forum declaration on climate change. And in Bangkok it has sided with the Trump administration and Japan in attempting to weaken climate finance obligations in a move that has horrified some observers.

Australia is coming under increasing scrutiny since Malcolm Turnbull announced the country was dumping the emissions obligation proposed for the National Energy Guarantee, and was then dumped by the party’s climate denying conservative wing anyway.

Morrison has shown no interest in climate change, and has instructed new energy minister Angus Taylor to focus only on “bringing down prices” and ensuring the country retains as much “fair dinkum” coal in the system as it can.

Even environment minister Melissa Price, a former mining company lawyer who is supposed to be responsible for emissions, is talking up the idea of having new coal-fired generators.

The international community is looking on in horror, and so are the main business lobby groups in Australia, such as the Business Council of Australia – who have campaigned vigorosuly for a decade to minimise Australia’s contribution to climate action, but understand the considerable reputational, trade and business consequences of choosing to do nothing.

Morrison has so far resisted calls from the party’s far right to follow Trump out of the Paris climate treaty, but in crucial and complex climate talks in Bangkok this week, sided with the US and Japan in a dramatic attempt to weaken climate finance obligations.

The Bangkok talks were called to give negotiators extra time to put together the so-called “rule-book,” which will provide the fine details of the Paris agreement, particularly as countries gear up to increase their climate targets to try and drag the collective efforts closer to the target of limiting global warming to “well below” 2°C, and possibly 1.5°C.

But little progress has been made in Bangkok, forcing the UNFCCC, which runs the climate talks, to call for the annual talks scheduled this year in Poland to begin a day earlier, in the hope that visiting heads of state have something to work with when they turn up.

One of the biggest road-blocks has been erected by Australia, the US and Japan, who put in a joint submission that seeks to water down climate finance guidelines, and casts doubt that this week’s Bangkok negotiations will deliver the clear climate rules UN leaders have been calling for.

Climate campaigners say the proposed text on article 9.7 of the Paris accord, which refers to accounting and is meant to establish rules about how developed countries report what finance they provide to developing countries, serves to muddy the rules rather than clarify them.

The campaigners say that the proposal would allow countries to report whatever items they like – including commercial loans ≠ as climate finance, in contrast to demands of clear financial and technical packages to help them developing countries cope with future extreme weather-related events.

“(This) does not create any meaningful rules on how climate finance is accounted for, and instead it essentially says ‘countries should report what they want,’” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns for ActionAid USA, told Devex.

“This would completely let rich countries off the hook and deprive developing countries of real money for real action,” Wu said. Other campaigners said this meant climate finance could just be re-badged existing aid.”

Indeed, some are accusing Australia and other western countries of “disgracefully” and “sheepishly” hiding behind Trump’s announced exit from Paris to further their own agenda

They note that the Paris treaty was made weaker for the rich countries than the Kyoto Protocol, because of the politics in the US, and the efforts of most negotiators to bend over backwards to accommodate the US demands, only to find the US withdrawing.

“They should have acted as a firewall to stop the virus of the US approach from infecting the climate negotiations, but instead they have allowed US interests to once again paralyse progress,” writes by Mohamed Adow from Christian Aid International.

“Putting developing countries further in debt might be Donald Trump’s idea of what climate finance should look like, but it is not the real money for real action that’s needed to solve the climate crisis.

“Other wealthy countries must stop Trump in further weakening the Paris Agreement and instead honour their commitments by delivering a rulebook that is fit for protecting people and planet, not polluter’s profits.”

Don’t expect the Coalition government in Australia to pay much heed to that.

These problems are being felt acutely in the Pacific, where island nations are furious with Australia’s stance on climate, its attachment to coal, and its refusal to act on its declarations that “it takes climate change seriously.”

The current Coalition government still has no policy in place to try and reach what is regarded as a very low interim target of a 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. So while it has signed a declaration recognising that climate change is the biggest security threat to the Pacific, it has no plans to do anything about it.

A new report by ClimateWorks  says Australia is well off track, but it actually has the opportunity to meet the target through some low cost abatement. Much of this comes in the energy sector, but the Coalition is now talking about building new “fair dinkum” coal-fired generators, and making threats against companies that dare contemplate closing older, dirty, and increasingly unreliable and expensive power plants.

Numerous reports this week have pointed to the potential economic consequences of failing to act on climate change – at a global level, a national level, and even a state level. A new report suggested that – despite all the claims – coal was not the cheapest option because even existing plans would soon be more expensive to run than new renewables and storage facilities.

In Nauru, at the Pacific Forum, Australia was accused of seeking to water down the language of the declaration and issuing qualifications to part of the Pacific Islands Forum communique over the Paris climate agreement.

The Guardian quoted the prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, saying that the name of the country seeking qualifications “[started] with capital A”. Australia is the only country in the PIF beginning with A.

It quoted Vanuatu’s minister for foreign affairs Ralph Regenvanu saying: “I was there, and can confirm this is true. And unfortunate.”

Bill Hare, managing director of Climate Analytics and a lead author on the IPCC fourth assessment report, told Guardian Australia that Pacific leaders were growing increasingly disenchanted with Australia’s refusal to commit to cutting carbon emissions.

“The leaders are not fools, and they are increasingly confronted by the problems of climate change, in all its different dimensions,” Hare said. “The problem for Australia is it doesn’t have credibility on climate. Australia is an important player for many of the Pacific Island countries, well-respected and well-liked by the populations and the political leaders, but on climate change there is a chasm opening up.

He said the real test for Australia would be in its actions to address its own emissions, and in helping the Pacific with adaptation.

“The actions will not match the gravity of the declaration or the gravity of the need. There is a credibility gap: Australia is not acting on reducing its own emissions. All the leaders know that whenever the prime minister or energy minister says Australia will meet its Paris targets ‘in a canter’, that that it is wrong, it is factually incorrect – it is bullshit.”

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