Australia in the spotlight on climate negotiations Opinion Article

Nov 25, 2013 - 5:28pm

This article was originally published in  ABC's The Drum on 22 November 2013.

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute 

The Warsaw UN climate summit concluded over the weekend with small steps forward when strides were needed.

The outcomes of the meeting were hard fought but important. In particular, there is a new expectation that major emitters advance new pre- and post-2020 emission reduction offers by April 2015, at the latest.

Part of the difficulty was countries realising they were in the endgame of a process scheduled for a final agreement at the end of 2015. Countries have learnt lessons from Copenhagen in 2009 and indeed Kyoto in 1997.

Copenhagen did not deliver on many expectations because the big decisions on what was a fair effort were left for too late. At Kyoto, holding back offers till the last moment was rewarded with a special "Australia clause" on land clearing. And it made us one of very few countries to be allowed a pollution increase.

This time, countries moved to avoid that situation.

Instructed by Canberra, diplomats took difficult, if not obstructive, positions in the negotiations. It was not missed by anyone that Australia sent a diplomat rather than a minister. These actions pushed Australia to - or beyond - the margins of climate credibility and global citizenship.
The US said that ample time was needed to "expose to sunlight" offers - so that criticisms, comparisons and collective implications could be drawn well in advance. Europe called for late 2014. Others, including The Climate Institute, called for the UN secretary-general's special world leader meeting in September 2014 to be the date for initial offers. Making things more lively were questions on performance of developed country commitments to facilitate public and private investment flows of at least $100 billion a year by 2020, as well as other substantial climate financing earlier.

At a time of challenged treasury coffers around the globe, the temptation to cut and run must have been strong. That countries didn't and submitted hundreds of millions of dollars was significant.

That these amounts remain insignificant compared to fossil fuel subsidies irked some. That they still didn't come with a clear timeline for scaling up towards the $100 billion irked many others and was part of the final standoff.

The other reason Warsaw was difficult came down to Australia appearing to backtrack on 2020 emissions reduction commitments of up to 25 per cent. Inflammatory remarks about core international climate financing principles and institutions didn't help.

Instructed by Canberra, diplomats took difficult, if not obstructive, positions in the negotiations. It was not missed by anyone that Australia sent a diplomat rather than a minister.

These actions pushed Australia to - or beyond - the margins of climate credibility and global citizenship, attracting direct or thinly veiled criticism from China to South Africa, and Pacific islands to Europe.  

Japan added further fuel to the fire with its reversal on its emissions reduction pledge.

In the end, however, an agreement was struck on a roadmap to the 2015 agreement.

Decisions were also made towards a "loss and damage" mechanism to help vulnerable countries address unmanageable climate impacts. Guidelines were established to allow the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations protect rainforests.

The Government's actions during Warsaw have guaranteed that the international community will be watching our actions warily. Indeed, Australia rather spectacularly put itself in the spotlight just as numerous tests arise from early next year.

In April, countries under the Kyoto Protocol are to submit proposals of how they might lift 2020 emissions reduction targets submitted under a second commitment period. To its credit, our new Government didn't withdraw from this commitment.

But it will be interesting to see if a minister is sent to the ministerial meeting discussing those proposals in June.

In September, the Prime Minister and other world leaders have been invited to come with "bold" pre- and post-2020 pledges to a UN summit in New York.

December will have both the G20 and the next climate talks sharpening the rules for review of comparisons.

And as noted above, the end of April 2015 is the latest date countries like ours will be expected to advance 2025/2030 emission reduction contributions.

These climate negotiations aren't just a sandbox to the side of "real" trade and economic international negotiations. They are deeply enmeshed. Bad behaviour in one risks consequences in others.

It wasn't just environment ministers stalking the stadium in Warsaw. Finance, resource and economic ministers joined with senior foreign affairs officials, including the vice chairman of China's lead national economic strategy agency, Xie Zhenhua.

That most of those stayed the extra day and found a way through great difficulties is a key part of the Warsaw story.

The agreed roadmap - with current reduction and financing commitments - is not enough to ensure the collective goal of avoiding global warming of more than two degrees.

All aspects should have been stronger and it will make the collective task next year and the year after more challenging, but that will heighten the costs of poor behaviour.


John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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