Narrow focus not enough to tackle climate change Opinion Article

Sep 04, 2013 - 6:51pm

This article was first published in The Age on 4 September 2013. 


Erwin Jackson
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute


There has been growing scrutiny of the Coalition's policy to reduce Australia's emissions but less attention to its diplomatic plans to help build global action on climate change.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt has touched on the Coalition's approach in a number of speeches, but how do these proposals stack up as the world moves to finalise the new global agreement in Paris in 2015?

To date, the Coalition has been quietly offering a largely non-partisan approach to Australia's climate diplomacy. It has given in-principle support to a second Kyoto Protocol target that will soon need to be ratified, it agrees with more than 190 other nations that we should seek to avoid a 2-degree increase in global temperature, and it supports the full range of 2020 emission targets that Australia has committed to with the international community. (This includes up to a 25 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, not just the 5 per cent target some in the media focus on.)

Importantly, Mr Hunt has also started to discuss how Australia, as chair of the G20 when it meets in Brisbane late next year, could bring together the G4 – China, the US, India and the European Union – to reach a collective agreement on climate action.

He has also raised the prospects of sectoral agreements and actions such as targeting emissions from deforestation and degradation in developing nations.

Both major parties agree that Australia's national interest rests in avoiding a 2-degree global temperature increase. It is well established that the impacts of warming above this level would be particularly severe on Australian communities, natural systems and key economic sectors such as agriculture and tourism.


Ultimately we need to build a global agreement with strong pre- and post-2020 ambitions. This will only occur if we, and other major emitters, commit to action consistent with avoiding a 2-degree increase in global temperature next year. 


Defence analyses have also highlighted our proximity to other much poorer regional neighbours who will be particularly affected by more extreme climate events and the implications for our humanitarian, disaster relief and defence capabilities.

Avoiding these impacts at relatively low cost requires a strong and co-ordinated global response. Given the G20 nations represent around 80 per cent of global emissions, it is an important forum for building global action.

However, we have to be realistic about the challenges that will confront Australia in using the G20 as a staging post to the new agreement in Paris a year later.

Firstly, history does not support the common argument that forging a voluntary agreement between major emitters is the most effective way to tackle climate change. Analysis by the World Resources Institute, among others, has shown that emission “clubs” outside the UN's processes have not delivered substantive investment in clean energy or major emission reductions to date.

The G20 itself is an example of this. In 2009, under the leadership of US President Barack Obama, the G20 nations agreed to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. With the exception of some suboptimal reporting, there is almost nothing to show for this.

In Australia, for example, where the OECD and the International Monetary Fund have identified subsidies worth billions of dollars, the government has argued that by the definition of the agreement no subsidies exist.

Contrast this to the Kyoto Protocol. Just one facet of the agreement, global carbon markets, has supported around two-thirds of all clean energy investment in the developing world since 2004.

This does not cover the additional investment driven by national policies implemented to meeting the protocol's binding targets, e.g. Australia's renewable energy target, the EU's emission trading scheme and Japan's array of energy efficiency measures.

Secondly, Australia will face a credibility challenge. True, the Coalition has made a “clear and categorical” commitment to reducing emissions by 5-25 per cent by 2020. However, a key plank of the agreement made in Durban last year is a commitment to lift emission reduction ambition before 2020.

Next year a number of international processes are squarely focused on countries coming forward with commitments to lift their current efforts. Australia has agreed that by March it will outline its intentions to boost its Kyoto target.

The Prime Minister will be invited, along with other world leaders, to a special climate summit hosted by the UN Secretary-General in the second half of 2014. Australia will then host the G20 in December.

Set aside for a moment the possibility that all this is occurring while Australia under a Coalition government becomes the first country to try to dismantle its own carbon market and large question marks sit over the Coalition's policy to deliver the 5-25 per cent reductions.

If Australia fails to lift its pre-2020 target to a level consistent with our defined national interest, our credibility with key players at the G20 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks is, at best, diminished.

The Coalition's climate ambitions for the G20 are welcome and laudable. But focusing too narrowly on the four biggest players at this single forum, without attending to the broader processes already in train, would be unwise.

While a G20 agreement between the major emitters would be a step forward for global action, it's not clear that this is an aim with a high chance of success, nor that such an agreement would be sufficiently ambitious to achieve Australia's national interest.

Ultimately we need to build a global agreement with strong pre- and post-2020 ambitions.

This will only occur if we, and other major emitters, commit to action consistent with avoiding a 2-degree increase in global temperature next year.

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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