It’s a pity that neither Prime Minister Tony Abbott, nor any of his ministers, are travelling to Poland for the climate change negotiations that begin in Warsaw today. If Abbott would ever like to meet his doppelgänger on clean energy and climate change policies, then this would have been a perfect occasion.
Poland Prime Minister Donald Tusk has achieved on a continental scale what Abbott has only succeeded so far in Australia. Tusk has proudly vetoed any move to increase ambition on renewables targets and emission reduction targets, and helped ensure that the EU carbon price has become next to useless. Abbott should be thankful, because it helped give him the oxygen for the “great big tax” campaign against Australia’s carbon price.
Poland, like Australia, is heavily reliant on coal for its electricity. Tusk and his junior coalition partner, the Peasants party, are suspicious of anything that might upset the primacy of this commodity – and this includes carbon policies, wind and solar farms, and anything else that the coal industry might consider “dangerous.”
Such is Poland’s reputation that this meeting – the 19th Conference of the Parties – has been dubbed the “Coal COP”. And indeed, the Economics Ministry is indicating where its priorities lie by hosting the World Coal Association’s international summit – which among other matters will look at how to turn “clean coal” from a marketing term to a “deliverable” – right in the middle of the UN-sponsored climate talks.
The COP 19 talks are being hosted across the river in the National Stadium, last used for a major event at the Euro 2012 football finals. It is strangely appropriate – not just for the opportunity of some environmental hooliganism – but also because these talks are all about setting the “rules of the game”- to finally achieve an effective global agreement by the time this climate caravan arrives in Paris in 2015.
The worst outcome would be a repeat of the score at the first match ever played in this stadium – a 0-0 draw. On climate, there is little time to act. Growth in global emissions is slowing, but the amount of carbon is still rising and it needs to peak before 2020. And, the UN knows, from its experience in Copenhagen, the details of a post 2020-agreement cannot be left to the last moment.
So it wants the main agreements to be resolved at a leaders summit in September, and many of the details to be sorted at the next COP in Lima, Peru. That would leave 2015 to dot the Is and cross the Ts, so that Paris should be like the finish of the Tour de France, a couple of ceremonial victory laps up and down the Champs Elysee.
There are reasons for renewed hope in these talks –the release of the IPCC report, the decisive action being taken by China and the US to impose strict environmental regulations on coal, and a general realization that this is probably the last throw of the dice if the 2C are to achieved without some dramatic economic or technological disruption.
And this is why the actions of the Abbott government will be influential. Nick Robins, the economist from HSBC Bank, says the only negative development since last year’s meeting in Doha has been the Australian government’s decision to try and roll back its carbon price. Australia marks the start of the UN summit not by sending a minister, but making sure he stays at home to introduce a carbon repeal bill as its first order of business in the new parliament.
Australia also plays a central role in the talks as lead spokes-country for the Umbrella Group, a key negotiating bloc that includes the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway. The first five countries have already announced they are leaving Kyoto – a decision that causes grief among developing countries. Australia’s move on this will be key.
Australia is also a key member of the Cartagena Dialogue, which can probably best be described as a loose coalition of “sensible countries” and a broker between the negotiating extremes. Australia’s recent efforts, including throwing insults at the head of the UNFCCC chief over her linking of bushfires and climate change, and the climate science musings of Abbott’s inner coterie, have not yet disqualified it from membership, but it must be running close.
Climate campaigners say Australia has usually “punched above its weight” and been relatively constructive, no matter which party has been in power. How the current team, led now by diplomat Justin Lee, performs in the absence of any minister or parliamentary secretary – for the first time in 16 years – and with the domestic rhetoric of the new government, which has not gone un-noticed in international circles, is going to be fascinating.
There will be a couple of key tests:
– will Australia reaffirm its commitment to a range of emissions reduction targets from 5 per cent to 25 per cent? Given the general verdict that Direct Action would struggle to reach a 5% target, and the blithe dismissal of the Climate Change Authority’s insistence on a higher target, this is not guaranteed. Indeed, given the Abbott government’s refusal to entertain “any new taxes”, it may be unlikely.
– The UN wants countries to deliver their pledges by the end of 2014. These would include signals that Australia would be prepared to move beyond the 5-25 per cent range. But the Abbott government has said it will not budge until 2015, possibly because any greater commitment would beg the question: How?
– Australia’s commitment to climate finance for developing countries. The recent cuts to Australia’s aid budgets and other signals do not bode well.
And it should be noted here that not everyone swallows the argument that Australia is “doing its bit” in climate action to date, as this graph below indicates. Industrialised countries were supposed to cut their emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 to meet the 2C target.
But key countries such as Australia have actually increased their CO2 emissions by almost 60 per cent (if you exclude land care). The EU is on track to meet its 20 per cent target while the US is set to achieve its goal of a 17 per cent cut below 2005 levels, but is still emitting more than 1990.
Only Russia among the major Annex 1 countries is on course to deliver the required cuts – but as a result of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, not by policy design.
Robins says that to make progress that these talks, governments will need to have five key principles in mind as they negotiate the details of a post 2020 agreement and draw up their pledges.
These principles are “Adequacy” (the need to meet the 2°C goal ); “Bravery” (the injection of t real leadership); “Comparability” (the need to make transparent and quantifiable pledges); “Dynamism” (the willingness to make progressively tighter commitments from 2020 to 2050; and “Equity” (respecting both responsibility and the capacity to act).
How many of these boxes does the Abbott government tick? Judging by their actions of their first 8 weeks in government, probably none.