Global leaders have slammed the poor result from the latest round of UN climate talks that concluded on the weekend, lamenting the “lost opportunity” to ramp up action on climate change as a handful of countries, including Australia, sought to undermine the talks.
The 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) in Madrid concluded two days late, but it was a lacklustre result which saw Australia, joined by Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia and the United States emerge as major antagonists pushing for accounting loopholes and weakened commitments. It was widely condemned by much of the international community.
The primary objective of the Australian delegation for COP25 was to avoid attempts to prevent countries from using surplus from the Kyoto Protocol – when Australia was allowed to increase emissions – towards achieving targets under the Paris Agreement. This was a ‘red line’ issue for Australian negotiators, who blocked any attempts to ban the use of such credits.
While Australia succeeded in preventing agreement on a Kyoto carryover prohibition, the issue remains unresolved and will remain a focus of future negotiations.
In the process, the Morrison government has burnt through a substantial amount of Australia’s diplomatic capital, and significantly damaged the country’s international standing on climate issues; all for a temporary reprieve from a prohibition on the use of Australia’s surplus Kyoto-era emissions permits.
Due to Australia’s stubbornness over the carryover loophole, the talks were unable to reach agreement on a range of rules related to carbon markets and international carbon trading. It leaves a substantial hole related to ‘article 6’ of the Paris Agreement unresolved, and countries without a complete ‘rule book’ for the Paris Agreement which comes into force next year.
Australia’s brinkmanship helped push the COP25 talks into overtime, setting a new record for the “longest COP”.
Rather than allowing Australia to carve out a special deal, negotiating blocs including the European Union and the Alliance of Small Island States took up the fight to Australia refusing to allow the strength of the Paris Agreement to be watered down.
The impasse meant the COP25 talks continued through well to Sunday afternoon, more than 36-hours overtime, as negotiators tried in vain to find a resolution to the disagreements.
But Australia refused to cede to a group of more than 30 countries that spoke out against Australia’s plans to use the accounting loophole, a group that included traditional allies in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
These countries signed up to a set of ‘San Jose principles‘ developed by negotiators from Costa Rica, and represent a set of minimum conditions that must be applied to any rules on international carbon trading.
The group said Australia’s proposed accounting loophole was inconsistent with these principles and would undermine efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, with Costa Rica later singling out Australia, along with Brazil and the United States for positions that did not represent environmental integrity.
Costa Rica's environment minister Carlos Rodriguez says negotiations on carbon markets (Article 6) are stalled. He names Australia, Brazil and the US for trying to undermine the environmental integrity of the market. Those positions are "unacceptable" he says. #COP25
— Chloé Farand (@ChloeFarand) December 13, 2019
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres expressed his disappointment with the outcome of the talks, having hoped the conference could be used as a platform for ramping up ambition from all countries.
“The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis,” Guterres said following the closure of the talks.
“I am more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary to reach carbon neutrality in 2050 and a no more than 1.5 degree temperature rise.”
As UN climate talks work on the basis of consensus decision making, all countries must agree on a decision for it to be adopted. As no such consensus could be reached on the issue of the Kyoto carryover, the conference instead opted to formally note the conflicting positions of countries and agreed to revisit the issue at a later date.
So while the Australian delegation succeeded in preventing such a prohibition being established, the success is temporary, and countries will revisit a potential prohibition of a Kyoto carryover next year.
While many have played down Australia’s contribution to global emissions, representing “just 1.3% of global emissions”, Australia showed its real ability to stymie action on climate change, acting as one of the primary blockers of progress at the Madrid talks.
The result makes it clear that the Morrison government’s ability to use 411 million tonnes of surplus Kyoto-era units to meet its 2030 target is far from guaranteed, demonstrating that a large part of the international community is advocating against it and that questions over its legal basis remain.
“Australia insistence on of using hundreds of millions of tonnes of hollow carbon credits, is unpopular, illegal and immoral and was a key reason why negotiations on carbon markets collapsed and kicked to next year,” former Australian negotiator, Richie Merzian said, who observed the COP25 talks in Madrid with the Australia Institute.
“Australia failed to convince the world it ‘earnt’ the right to use assigned Kyoto units to meet its Paris target, and next year countries will look to put the final nail in the coffin on the use of these dodgy carbon credits.”
“Australia has lost a good deal of diplomatic credibility and will struggle to internationally defend (and bank on) its dodgy Kyoto credits to avoid taking action to meet its Paris Agreement target.”
The COP25 outcome leaves many issues relating to carbon markets and international cooperation to reduce emissions unresolved and head of the Carbon Markets Institute, John Connor, likewise labelled the talks as a missed opportunity.
“Australia’s proposal to carryover Kyoto credits into its 2020-2030 emissions reduction commitments and Brazil’s insistence for double-counting loopholes came under heavy fire. Not just from neighbours in the Pacific but significant trading partners in Europe and the UK,” Connor said.
“Carbon markets can boost international cooperation and drive savings that can enhance emission reduction efforts. It is crucial we continue to build their capacity and momentum.”
“The world requires many billions of dollars of investment to achieve the billions of tonnes of emissions reduction that we need for a safer climate. Investors need clarity on rules to guide these investments and confidence in their integrity,” Connor added.
Throughout the talks, Australia found an ally in the Bolsonaro’s Brazil, who likewise sought to retain the benefits of Kyoto-era permits created under the Clean Development Mechanism.
The United States also sought to confine a scheme that would see compensation provided to vulnerable developing countries impacted by climate change to countries that were signatories to the Paris Agreement.
Negotiators saw the United States positions as particularly unconscionable, given the United States is set to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, and such a decision would effectively absolve the United States from compensating vulnerable countries for damage caused by climate change.
The next round of talks will be held in late 2020 and hosted by the United Kingdom in Glasgow. Despite the recent chaos of domestic politics that have been consumed by the unresolved issue of Brexit, the United Kingdom has maintained a progressive stance on climate action.
Former UK energy minister Claire Perry O’Neill will serve as the president of the COP26 conference in Glasgow and has already flagged her intention to find a resolution to the Kyoto carryover issue.
“No Deal is [definitely] better than the bad deal proposed,” O’Neill tweeted following the conclusion of the Madrid talks. “We will pull no punches next year in getting clarity and certainty for natural carbon markets and will work with everyone including the private sector for clear rules and transparent measurement.”