Australia lies low in Katowice as UN scrapes together rules for climate deal

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Environment minister Melissa Price kept as low a profile as possible in Poland climate talks, as Australia’s only noticeable contribution to public debate was its declared support of fossil fuels.

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The UN Climate Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland was always going to be a fight, given it had to tease out the devilish detail of the Paris Agreement without the political momentum of the landmark treaty itself.

Yet, as the UN Secretary General said at its conclusion, the conference demonstrated the ‘resilience of the Paris Agreement’.

Despite many obstacles, including the relative absence of US leadership – which emboldened the self-interest of parties like Saudi Arabia and Brazil – and the compromised (coal-loving) leadership from the Polish hosts, the deal came together. In fact, it was the smaller, marginal voices that were most impressive.

The hero of the COP24 was a 15 year old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who helped mobilise a new, young and frustrated constituency to the cause and called on leaders to focus on what needs to be done, not just political point scoring.

Attending COP24 as the Climate and Energy Program Director of The Australia Institute was a dramatic shift for me, after over 9 years with the Australian Government as a climate negotiator to the UN. But going from being inside the tent to an ‘observer’ role confirmed the view that the current Government is completely out of touch with the interests of most Australians and at COP24, it manifested in an incongruous way.

Australia’s political messaging on climate change came from the Minister for the Environment, Melissa Price and the Ambassador for the Environment, Patrick Suckling.

Both spruiked the resilience and merits of fossil fuels, with the Ambassador stealing the limelight by appearing alongside Trump appointees at the US’ pro-fossil fuel sideshow, which was widely expected to be the most controversial event at COP24.

The Minister also made a point of encouraging LNG exports, earning Australia the ‘fossil of the day’ award from major NGO groups.

The second and saner Australian voice, came from the technical operators, represented by the hard-working negotiators hammering out the Paris Rulebook and the research, industry and environmental ‘observers’ at COP24.

Let’s not forget that two thirds (66 percent) of Australians want the country to be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change, a result higher than at any time in the past seven years.

During COP24 Australians could be seen at youth actions, hosting an independent podcast (called Copcast of course) and giving the high-level statement on behalf of all researchers during the ministerial segment and the closing statement on behalf of all industry groups at the final plenary.

The cities of Sydney and Melbourne even joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance led by Canada and the UK. It is unfortunate that the only time Australia made international headlines at COP24, was as the lonely foreigner at the US pro-fossil fuel side-event (even sporting an American flag on the Australian Ambassador’s nameplate).

By most accounts, the Australian Minister for the Environment walks away personally unscathed from her first Ministerial trip. The Minister held no official side-events, gave no media interviews and was not asked to serve as ministerial facilitator by the COP President (a role Australia often played in the past).

It was as low-key as it gets in terms of ministerial engagements, a legacy which has further reinforced Australia’s political marginalisation at the COP. New Zealand by contrast was stepping up and filling a once played by Australia, as the climate champion of the Pacific.

New Zealand took the podium to announce new funding for the Pacific, further distancing itself from an Australian Government that unilaterally (and it appears, without DFAT knowing) cut its support to the UN’s key climate finance vehicle, the Green Climate Fund.

Australia used to be a member of the High Ambition Coalition in Paris (under the Coalition Government) but in Katowice when this Coalition convened to call for a strong rulebook, Australia was noticeably absent (while NZ was front and centre).

In terms of the Minister’s ‘top priority’ – transparency rules, it is the most comprehensive chapter in the Paris Rulebook and applies equally to all (avoiding bifurcation). The Rulebook does not limit Australia’s ability to use carryover Kyoto units to meet its Paris Agreement target ‘in a canter’.

This might be up for debate next year, given many of the rules around how credits can be used are still in contention. It is disappointing the Environment Minister would not comment on the carryover loophole, unlike her New Zealand counterpart who took a principled position against it and encouraged all countries to avoid such cop-outs.

With COP24 over, many are turning their minds to 2019. Although there will be a meeting of the technical bodies to the UN climate framework (called the subsidiary bodies) in May-June, the real focus will be on the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York in September.

The Sec-Gen made numerous appearances at the COP and has been ramping up his language around urgency with each intervention.

He has already narrowed the focus of his summit squarely on ambition and will encourage leaders to come with increased pledges for emissions reductions and climate finance. He will be aided by the incoming COP Presidents and renewable energy powerhouses Chile (COP25 host) and Costa Rica (Pre-COP25 meeting host).

Costa Rica will certainly call on their former minister and the ex-UN climate chief, Cristiana Figures, given her skills and success pulling off the Paris Agreement. Hopefully by then Australians will have a Government that reflects their desire to be a climate leader not a laggard.

Richie Merzian is director of the climate and energy program at The Australian Institute and attended the talks in Poland.

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