Will Morrison trust Australia’s rookie team heading to Madrid climate talks?

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As international climate talks kick off in Madrid, Australia will send a new head negotiator and a first-time minister to crucial round of negotiations.

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Credit: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
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Angus Taylor, the first time minister for emissions reductions, and a man under intense political pressure, will lead a rookie team of negotiators at the latest round of UN-sponsored climate talks that kick off in Madrid this week, with Australia is expected to face intense heat over its laggard policies and targets on climate change.

Australia will send a relatively inexperienced negotiating team to the talks in Madrid. Australia will be represented by the newly appointed ambassador for the environment, Jamie Isbister, and minister for energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor – both attending the UN talks in those roles for the first time.

While Isbister has a significant amount of diplomatic experience in government roles, particularly in the humanitarian space, the COP25 talks in Madrid will be the first time Isbister will lead an Australian delegation at a major international forum.

Cuts to Australia’s budget for diplomatic engagement is also reducing the size of the delegation sent to Madrid, and it is understood that a smaller team of diplomats will accompany the minister in Madrid.

RenewEconomy has sought confirmation of whether the more experienced foreign minister Marise Payne will also be attending the talks after Payne represented Australia during a climate leadership summit held in New York earlier in the year.

Additionally, trade minister Simon Birmingham is likely to closely watch the talks, as climate change begins to become a feature of international trade partnerships, including a push from the European Union to include recommitments to the Paris Agreement in a new free trade agreement being negotiated with Australia.

Birmingham told ABC’s RN Breakfast program that he was “relaxed” about being asked by the European Union to reaffirm commitments to the Paris Agreement goals.

“We’ve had discussions with the EU about our commitment to the Paris Agreement, and our commitment to Paris is resolute and absolute,” Birmingham said. “We’re going to get on and make sure that we as a country meet those targets, and are quite relaxed about restating that commitment where and when it is required.”

The EU, and other countries, however, are keen for Australia to lift its ambitious from its current 26-28 per cent target. The Morrison government has shown little interest in doing this, instead insisting that its “modest” contributions to global emissions excuse it from further action.

Taylor sought leave from parliament to attend the talks early, and to attend talks on fuel security in Paris hosted by the International Energy Agency.

But Taylor was denied a voting “pair” in parliament from the Labor opposition, with Labor seeing the request as an excuse by Taylor to avoid a final week of parliamentary setting, that will be dominated by ongoing scrutiny of a police investigation into his letter to Clover Moore.

Taylor’s controversial intervention into the City of Sydney’s climate ambition suggest that neither diplomacy nor hard data are his strong points. He will face ongoing calls this week to stand aside from his ministerial portfolios while the police investigation takes place into whether a version of City of Sydney annual report was deliberately faked, and if parliament was misled.

The Morrison government’s key priority for the talks will be to ensure that it will be able to carry over its surplus emissions permits from the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2020, and which led allowed Australia to significantly increase emissions in its first phase, and use them towards meeting the government’s 2030 emissions reduction target under Paris.

The Morrison government is counting on these surplus permits to deliver around half of the necessary emissions reductions to meet the 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030.

Many countries, including the European Union and Alliance of Small Island States negotiating blocs, oppose the carryover of surplus Kyoto protocol permits into the Paris Agreement, as they view such a carryover undermines the environmental integrity of the Paris agreement and is against the ‘spirit’ of the goals contained within the agreement.

Knowing that Australia will be unlikely to win support from other countries for the carryover, Australia may seek to avoid discussions of the plan altogether, taking the approach that it may be better to say nothing, than to seek agreement and inadvertently having the ability to carryover surplus permits being ruled out.

Australia has a track record of negotiating ‘sweetheart’ deals at the climate change talks, including the infamous “Australia Clause” that provided Australia with a substantial credit under the Kyoto Protocol for reduced emissions relating to land-use, land-use change and forestry.

At the 2018 round of talks, held in Katowice in Poland, Australia was awarded a ‘fossil of the day’ award by environmental groups as a result of its stance on the Kyoto carryover.

In light of Australia’s lacklustre emissions targets, and lack of meaningful climate policies, Australia is a prime contender to receive further ‘fossil of the day’ awards in Madrid.

The talks in Madrid will run over two weeks, with the first week focused on the finer administrative details of the Paris Agreement, with countries aiming to finalise the Paris “rulebook”, that will dictate how emissions are recorded, and potentially traded between countries.

The second week will concentrate on the “high level” aspects of the talks, and are usually lead by ministers and heads of state. The second week, which minister Taylor will attend, will focus on countries ramping up their emissions reductions targets to 2030 and beyond.

While many countries will come to the meeting ready to commit to increased emission reductions, Taylor is likely to offer nothing beyond Australia’s existing 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction target.

Ahead of the COP25 meeting United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres ramped up expectations on countries to end the ‘war against nature’, urging governments to ramp up their actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our war against nature must stop. And we know that that is possible,” Guterres told a pre-COP25 press conference.

“The commitments made in Paris would still lead to an increase in temperature above three degrees Celsius. But many countries are not even meeting those commitments. Emissions of greenhouse gases are still growing at an alarming rate.”

Ahead of the talks, the Department of the Environment and Energy released updated national greenhouse gas emissions figures that showed emissions had fallen slightly during the year to June 2019.

The decline of 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, or just 0.1 per cent of national emissions, is unlikely to be a cause to celebrate, as most of the reduction was driven by declines in agricultural production, as the impacts of drought and flooding impact the sector.

The Madrid climate talks are planned to run from 2 December until 13 December.

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