Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Australia steps off road to a climate dead end

After six years of negotiating for Europe's best interests, the Abbott government has sensibly aligned Australia's position in international climate change talks to the national interest.

Recently the Abbott government announced it wouldn't be lumbering Australia with more burdensome emissions cuts at this week's climate change negotiations in Warsaw, Poland.

Instead the bipartisan 5 per cent cut of emissions off 2000 levels would remain and no further tax dollars would be on offer for emissions reduction financing programs.

It's difficult to overstate the strategic realignment of the new government's sensible policy change.

To increase their clout and aid the negotiating process countries combine to create negotiating blocs.  The developed world breaks into two main blocs — the European Union and the loose Umbrella group of non-European developed economies.

The negotiating trajectory of the Brussels-led delegation has been to argue for a binding international agreement while progressively putting more ambitious proposals to cut emissions on the table in the hope that both rich and poor countries will follow their leadership.


Since its foundation after the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the Umbrella group has largely served as a counterbalancing reality check on Europe's ambitions.

Broadly, the Umbrella group has argued for a voluntary approach to cut emissions using policies that suit each country's national interests, while also insisting that developing countries that are the source of rising emissions also carry their share of the carbon cutting load.

Yet despite being chair of the Umbrella group, under the Rudd and Gillard governments Australia drifted toward the European position.

The absurdity of Australia's break with Umbrella group countries was highlighted at last December's negotiations surrounding the extension of the lapsed Kyoto Protocol.

On December 31 last year the first phase of the 1997 treaty expired.

In the second phase, European countries signed themselves up to cut emissions by 20 per cent off 2000 levels by 2020.

The current round of climate change talks is to secure a successor to Kyoto by the end of 2015 to then become operational after 2020.

The response from almost all of the Umbrella group countries to the European Union's "leadership" was to book flights and go home.

Having not ratified the first Kyoto phase, the United States did nothing to correct its course.  Countries that had previous ratified the Kyoto protocol, including Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Russia, followed the United States' leadership.


The Gillard government did the reverse and extended Kyoto and signed up to deeper cuts.

Worse, the then-opposition, keen to avoid the climate change wedge that the Rudd opposition rammed between itself and the Howard government in 2007 about ratifying the original Kyoto Protocol, lined up with the government.

Even after the election, the Climate Change Minister, Greg Hunt, reaffirmed the newly commissioned government's policy of following through Labor's plan to extend Kyoto arguing "in opposition, we gave in-principle support, in government, we still have in-principle support".

Hopefully the renewed wariness of the Abbott government to international climate talks may prompt a reassessment.

Despite the heavy cost that the struggling European continent is imposing on itself, having imposed burdensome emissions cuts the European negotiating position does make a modicum of sense.

Once the heavy cost of policies to cut emissions is imposed, Europe's interest is squarely to get other countries to commit themselves to comparable action.  If they don't, Europe shoulders the cost of cutting emissions while global emissions continue to rise.  Meanwhile, Europe has met its emissions targets through a mix of economic collapse during the global financial crisis and buying cheaper emissions cuts from developing countries.

But it appears that even Europe's position is fracturing.  Major coal producing and consuming countries are increasingly voicing their concern about the path Brussels is leading them down.

Recently the Polish environment minister was reported saying "this concept of leading by example is not delivering" and follows earlier Polish vetoes against Europe increasing its emissions cuts.

Not that Poland is alone.  On Friday last week, the Japanese government formally confirmed its previously hinted decision to reduce its 2020 emissions reduction target from 25 per cent to only 3.8 per cent.  Both economic and environmental factors are at play in Japan's decision;  the most notable being their choice to use coal, oil and gas for stationary energy to replace nuclear power post-Fukushima.  Japan's act is a salient reminder to green groups that opposing nuclear power and demanding higher emissions cuts is an oxymoron.

It's also a clear signal that despite the backdrop of hefty rhetoric from Labor and green groups to the contrary, the Abbott government's disengagement to burdensome targets is closely aligned to like-minded countries.

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