Australia disappoints at UN climate summit

The UN climate summit in New York brought together over 100 heads of state keen to progress global reductions in emissions beyond 2020. So what did Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop contribute? Very little.

Australia missed an opportunity to help build momentum towards ambitious climate change action at the UN summit on climate change in New York.

The summit’s aim is to build commitments to more ambitious climate action. Over 100 heads of government turned up, along with more than 800 leaders from business, finance and civil society. Announcements came thick and fast.

So far we’ve seen many countries re-affirm the agreed goal of avoiding 2 degrees warming and support decarbonisation or carbon neutrality well before the end of the century. Many have committed to 100 per cent renewable energy or promoted the growing share of renewables in the energy mix.

China, the United States and Europe promised to share their indicative post-2020 emission reduction targets by April next year, to build confidence for the UNFCCC negotiations in Paris in late 2015.

Countries and businesses worth more than half of global emissions and GDP launched a “coalition of the working” to advance carbon pricing. Institutional investors committed to decarbonising $100 billion by the end of next year, and to disclose the carbon footprint of at least $500 billion of investments.  

And what did Australia bring to the table? Very little to signal a sincere commitment to play a fair part in global action to avoid dangerous climate change.

Indeed, in some ways the Australian statement suggested a downgrade of our previous stance. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop proffered the minimum five per emission reduction cent target for 2020, while remaining silent on the full range of 5-25 per cent that Australia has officially committed to. The Climate Change Authority has already described the 5 per cent target as “inadequate”.

On the big emerging question of post-2020 targets, Australia’s only commitment was to share a post 2020 target after it reviewed those of all its ‘trading partners and competitors’. No timeline was given. More disturbingly, this formulation frames Australia’s interests in terms of the perceived impact of efforts to address climate change on our emission-intensive industries.

Given that Australia will suffer severe economic impacts under climate change above the global 2°C goal, the government should be taking a view of our national interest that includes concern for broader public wellbeing and prosperity, not just those of sectoral business groups.

A bright spot was support to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are super-potent greenhouse gases, under the Montreal Protocol, arguably the world’s most effective environmental treaty. Progress on this front will require domestic regulation to phase out HFCs.

Australia’s disappointing statement increases the risk that this country will leave itself out of the serious international climate conversation. This is not in our national interest, which demands serious action, investment and the take-up of low carbon opportunities.

Olivia Kember is national policy and research manager at the Climate Institute.