Culpability or compromise: Australia's choice Opinion Article

Nov 22, 2013 - 11:28am

This article was originally published in  Climate Spectator on 22 November 2013. 

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute

A combination of political and ideological fire-breathing at home in Australia, apparent obduracy in these talks and despair at the Abbott government’s real or potential backsliding has helped put a torch to trust and ambition in the early stages of these UN climate negotiations in Warsaw.

Adding fuel to the fire have been Japan’s actions, turning a significant emissions reduction pledge into an emissions increase pledge, along with provocative and cavalier moves from host Poland.

This has counter balanced more constructive engagement by other developed countries – such as the US, UK and Europe.

Ironically, though, Australia probably hasn’t deserved all the criticism dished out to it here as it hasn’t actually moved much on formal positions regarding target range, their conditions or even on the concept of climate financing. 

In the coming hours Australia will either help repair or further inflame both damaged diplomatic links and brittle climate talks that it has no doubt put in danger. 

But Australia has deserved criticism for comments at the Commonwealth and Canberra that have challenged core concepts, and has often been accused by other negotiators of less than helpful behaviour – not all of whom are without blame themselves.

The most significant change is the dropping of political support for the Green Climate Fund for which Australia was a co-chair and which is an important part of the international climate architecture – there has been no repudiation of the need for climate financing. Prior to the election the Coalition did express a preference for bilateral (nation to nation) funding.

Despite these challenges the talks are going into delicate stages with three core issues dominating final discussions. These are:
  • The nature of a roadmap to the agreed 2015 deadline for a global agreement and when pledges on emissions reduction are to be put forward.
  • Commitments to climate financing; capitalisation of the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund, and; how Australia will assist achievement of a 2020 commitment for $100 billion of public and private funds to be invested in low emissions, climate resilient development in poorer developing countries.
  • M echanisms, commitments and the place in negotiations of “Loss and Damage” issues (how to address the growing realisation that some impacts are going to unmanageable and beyond reasonable adaptive capacity). The extraordinary height and strength of storm surges from Typhoon Haiyan overwhelming protective bunkers gave vivid picture to this scenario.
Discussions are fraught precisely because countries are realising that even with a 2015 final deadline, they are entering the endgame of discussions on mechanisms, timelines and responsibilities that need to be followed if they are serious about a successful global agreement.

In the coming hours Australia will either help repair or further inflame both damaged diplomatic links and brittle climate talks that it has no doubt put in danger. 

We will be looking for constructive commitments on tabling of action pledges in late 2014 as well as good faith and constructive positions on financing and Loss and Damage.

The state of play - overall
  • Typhoon Haiyan has made an impact on countries here and Philippines negotiator has been fasting in call for action.
  • M inisters have arrived (mostly) and taken over from negotiators. 
  • This  is normally a time of chest beating but also business. Australia’s influence is undermined by not arriving with a Minister. Australian Ministers have often been delegated roles to lead or co-lead negotiations on various aspects. Exactly how the absence is impacting our voice being heard in the rooms I haven’t heard but we are not as involved in shaping outcomes. 
  • Things  are fraught but there is debate in the corridors whether they are more fraught than normal.  On one level the tensions nations reflect a realisation that the 2015 agreement endgame has begun (see Roadmap below) impacting domestic actions, preparations and politics right now. 
  • There is  no question that the actions of Australia, Japan and Poland have had an impact on fragile assets of trust and ambition in climate diplomacy. They have ensured Australia’s every move is viewed with distrust and cynicism by many inside and outside the negotiating rooms. 

  • Genuine befuddlement as to why we would be first country to dismantle a carbon market, but dismay and shock at some of the comments about climate financing and the Green Climate Fund. 
  • Some  confusion thinking Australia has reduced its target range of 5 to 25 per cent to just 5 per cent. It hasn't, at least yet, removed the range from its “pledge” in the formal UN documents. Australia has also not formally walked away from conditions used by the Climate Change Authority and that have been shared in work programs clarifying pledges with other nations in the UNFCCC. 
  • W idespread anger at comments describing climate finance potentially as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. This attacks a core principle of developed countries having an interest in assisting developing countries both clean up their development but also prepare for climate impacts. To be fair the government, it talked about a preference for aid framed as an investment requiring mutual responsibility. This actually isn’t contested here, the framing was completely unnecessary and inflammatory. 
  • Some  confusion that the government has given up on climate financing altogether – it hasn’t. Australia’s attitude to financing in negotiations are contested here at best they are being misunderstood but have as a fact on occasion used some inflammatory language, which led some delegates and many observers to believe they had attacked a core principle. 
  • There is a clear  mandate to “make no further financing commitments at this stage” – negotiators have been told, emphatically it would seem, not to offer money here. They say the review of slashes to AusAid funding and the folding of its administration back into DFAT – prevent any spending commitments here.  Assessments of extent and scale of future commitments will depend on the budget process so technically Australia will be ready by May next year at the latest – if a priority earlier. 
  • real change has occurred in actively stating that Australia won’t be investing in the Green Climate Fund. The previous government was involved in the establishment of this body and was a co-chair of its establishment Board.  There have been issues about trusting another body with taxpayer dollars from a number of potential donor countries but these have been largely overcome and some pledges are coming in and there is a goal of broader capitalisation in June next year. This body was established so it could strategically invest in both mitigation and adaptation at scale, a scale necessitated by  disparate and variable funding – a fact highlighted by the major reduction in Australia’s aid budget.
  • Tony  Abbott’s comments in Colombo, repeating disinterest in welfare financing and likening the Green Climate Fund to the “Bob Brown Bank” (Clean Energy Finance Corporation) was both wrong and inflammatory here.
  • A ustralia has copped a lot of flak here, much of which is deserved but much of which may not be. The real shocks came from fire breathing in Canberra and Colombo.
  • Last in the week, Japan worsened the early blows of Australia by reducing its formal emissions reduction target from up to 25 per cent below 1990 to a target that would equal 3 per cent above that number. Japan blames this on the shutdown of the nuclear industry – disputed by other experts – but has left open revisiting this, particularly if nukes come on line. 
  • Japan  tried to soften this with an announcement of $16 billion in climate finance.

  • Almost comical in begrudging support for this conference and process: hosted a coal conference nearby which has tried to influence final decision; had fossil fuel industries as major sponsors; and to cap it off, the Environment Minister and formal convenor were sacked mid-conference and replaced with a new Minister explicitly to “radically” speed up fracking of shale gas. 
Not all grim, convergence

As US lead negotiator Todd Stern noted today, there has been convergence in four main areas:
  • That all parties need to be participating.
  • Mitigation  (emissions reduction) targets nationally determined. 
  • Need  for transparency in all actions. 
  • Domestic processes now need to be ready to submit the reduction targets and other actions, e.g climate finance early to enable others to fully understand them, comment and “expose fully to sunlight”.

The key areas of difference are mostly to be found in key issues below but in addition:

  • Whether  the interpretation of developed and developing countries remain according to an Annex (1) of developed countries in the original 1992 Convention – this matters as developed countries have leadership expectations on reductions and finance (and some expectations are very high).  The developed list doesn’t have many Asian countries like South Korea, Singapore, China and India etc which grates with many.
  • Discussion for the 2015 agreement are split in two work streams – 1) is for post 2020 actions and 2) is pre 2020 actions, both of which are supposed to be targeted towards the objective of avoiding two degree warming.  Divisions are where the greatest focus should be, generally speaking, developing countries much keener for pre 2020 action – finance and targets, developed the other way around   
Key issues

a.      2015 Roadmap
  • One of the main tasks of this meeting was to establish a roadmap to the agreed deadline of a 2015 agreement  - most importantly when emissions reduction pledges are going to be put forward, with how much detail and with how much time to scrutinise them.
  • Australia famously held its cards close to itself to the very end in 1997 Kyoto negotiations, exacting an “Australia” clause on land clearing and one of the few to have a target of increased pollution under the Kyoto protocol, others played hard but it is a situation many are keen to avoid and to the surprise of many the US and EU have been strong voices for this to “expose to sunlight” (Todd Stern) the pledges, some like Brazil have taken a different tack saying 2015 should clarify the rules and the pledges follow, momentum is towards late 2014/early 2015.
  • Australia has been evasive on exactly what time they support draft pledges coming forward sticking merely to a public position of a national review of ambition in 2015 – this could mean a process that means we arrive with pledges or an early year one, which would be more respectable – a late 2014 even better. 
  • In terms of unavoidable timelines:
  1.  Australia will be required under its participation in the Kyoto Protocol to register by end of April its intentions to increase ambition of its second commitment (QELRO – currently based on 5 per cent).
  2. KP Ministers to gather in June in Bonn to discuss increasing ambition.
  3. UN Sec-General has extended an invitation to all world leaders to a special climate ambition summit the the day before the annual September gather – all leaders have been invited to attend
  4. Early December 2014, next COP, Lima, Peru. 

b.      Finance

  • Concept covered above, questions about how developed countries will be scaling up climate financing pre-2020 and achieve goal of $100 billion in public and private money to poor and vulnerable developing countries (China and India have ruled out accessing).
  • Australia committed to “fast start” 2010 -13 investments but unclear now.  While a few countries have been making announcements here, still short of meaningful contributions many are seeking.
  • Australia has not repudiated the $100 billion goal but has reportedly said the lions share of their support would be from private sector-  easy to say but virtually no private sector money expected to flow to adaptation (preparing for impacts) rather may go to new energy systems etc which can have a cash flow.

c.      Loss and Damage

•        Over the last few years this issue has grown in importance mechanism for discussing these things in the future.
•        Need to minimise Loss and Damage it is inversely related to mitigation and adaptation efforts.
•        A very good discussion of this (10 min) here.

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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