Climate response made in the USA Opinion Article

Dec 08, 2014 - 1:39pm

This article first appeared on ABC's The Drum on 8 December, 2014.

Erwin Jackson       
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

Will the post-2020 climate change framework be "made in the USA"? This is the question many in Lima, Peru, are pondering at the end of the first week of the climate talks.

There is little doubt that US president Barack Obama has made next year's Paris agreement the top diplomatic priority for the US, and that this has impacted on the process - both inside and outside. The US, along with Algeria, have now been confirmed as the new co-chairs that will guide the process into Paris, where the next international climate change agreement will be finalised.

Some examples of the impact of the change in posture of the US are obvious. The US-China announcement on emissions targets last month is the obvious one. This was not a one-sided deal. China takes the issue very seriously. But the agreement would not have happened if president Obama had not prioritised climate change in high level diplomatic engagement in recent times.

There is also no doubt that the US's active diplomacy at the highest levels with other nations has contributed to countries advancing climate finance pledges to the UN Green Climate Fund. The fund stands at a whisker of the indicative $US10 billion capitalisation goal, after Norway doubled its pledge this week, and cash-strapped Spain also chipped in.

That is not to say that other major players are not actively engaged.

Many countries have been important to getting us to where we are now. Germany, for example, has re-emerged from climate hibernation after its federal election, contributed $US1 billion to the Green Climate Fund, and this week announced additional emission reduction actions to achieve its targets of 40 per cent by 2020 and 55 per cent by 2030 (both reductions on 1990 levels). With a strong focus on energy productivity and an indicative electricity sector emissions cap, the German move signals the end of coal generation in one of the world's largest economies.

China is also showing some flexibility on issues that in the past would have been red lines - for example, long-term emissions reductions goals to 2050.

The positive momentum outside the process, however, risks creating a sense of complacency in the negotiations. At times during the first week in Lima it has felt like countries were coasting to the end game next week.

Granted, some of the conversations have been difficult. Strong differences of opinion have been expressed between and within the different negotiating blocs. This has not been helped by, at times, a confused process around the development of the draft Paris agreement.

Sharpest among these divisions rests on how to adequately address adaptation to climate impacts in the post-2020 framework. The old developed vs developing country divide is obvious on this issue. Concrete bridging proposals to create a vehicle for adaptation have been few and far between.

Other issues of particular contention include how to address the differentiation of contributions between countries (if at all), and climate finance. Hostage-taking is also occurring as countries tie progress on these issues to negotiations around how transparent initial post-2020 targets will be when advanced early next year.

So where does Australia sit? On a bed of nails.

Australia has not contributed to the Green Climate Fund, which leaves us in a very uncomfortable position among our peers and friends. Quite frankly, it's disgraceful that Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has not contributed to the fund. This is made worse by the reality that building resilience to climate change impacts and promoting low carbon development is in our own national interest. As a past Defence White Paper pointed out, if we don't pay now, we pay later in disaster relief and regional instability.

On other issues, like adaption and finance, Australia has taken positions more similar to other developed countries in the umbrella group, which includes the US, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Elsewhere it has also shown its willingness to compromise and move the discussions forward.

How far we have truly advanced or not in the past week will become more obvious when we see the new version of the Paris agreement text on Sunday or Monday.

Whether we have a Paris agreement made in the USA also remains to be seen. Current levels of US engagement at a presidential, secretary of state and diplomatic level is probably unprecedented in the history of the negotiations.

To ensure this engagement delivers a durable and ambitious outcome in Paris, the US and its allies will need, in part, to change course over the coming months. Adaptation in particular will need to be on a political level playing field with emissions reductions in Paris if the agreement is going to be formed on the basis of trust.

Finding this balance will help ensure that the years of implementation after Paris, and the ongoing cycle of greater ambition that will hopefully be embedded in the agreement, are not undermined.

Erwin Jackson

Erwin is Deputy CEO of The Climate Institute. With nearly 20 years practical experience in climate change policy and research, Erwin has developed and led many national and international programs aimed at reducing greenhouse pollution. This work has been undertaken in Australia, Europe, North and South America, the Pacific and Antarctica. He has represented non-governmental groups and advised government and business in national, regional and international fora, including being a non-governmental expert reviewer of the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Erwin has written, researched and produced many publications on climate change and energy policy including a number of review papers in scientific journals such as the Medical Journal of Australia.
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