Australia produces a bruising first half

Australia is being painted as a pariah at UN climate talks in Warsaw. Along with domestic policy reversals, the government is also playing hardball on international measures.

After the first week its halftime at the Polish national football stadium hosting this year’s climate talks and all are feeling battered and bruised. Australia, along with Japan and Canada, has been singled out for rough conduct and some dangerous backsliding. A number of disputes have seen a reversion to old world groupings threatening progress towards everyone’s stated objective of a global agreement in 2015.

There’s a mood of gritty resilience, however. And if one of these meetings was able to survive such body blows, it is this one which was never intended to be marked for major emission reduction outcomes, more its progress in clarifying a roadmap to 2015 among other issues.

Australia’s performance here and back home has been a major feature at the talks. 

People were shocked by the simultaneous introduction of legislation to make Australia the first country in the world to dismantle not only mechanisms to price and limit carbon pollution, but key independent agencies and clean energy funding as well.

This was inflamed by the Prime Minister’s apparent breaking of a pre-election promise that there was bipartisan support for an emission reduction range of up to 25 per cent below 2000 by 2020 and the conditions of relative international action that would guide them. Taken literally, his comments would smash the chances of Australia moving beyond its minimum 5 per cent reduction commitment and represent a major retreat.

The Environment Minister subsequently said the target range was still on the table. However, there remains deep uncertainty and suspicion in Warsaw about whether the rules have been changed and whether this also endangers the Coalition’s pledged support for a second commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. 

Our negotiators have used a formulation that remains ambiguous and Australia probably wasn’t helped by the Canadian government’s cheering of the repeal legislation. Their similar policy approach will, on their own projections, see them fail to achieve their own emission reduction target.

Australia has been accused of playing foul on at least two other grounds. 

The first is on whether they have, in reality, or by the conditions they are proposing, walked away from a crucial commitment made to be part of a collective 2020 goal that would see $100 billion in what is called climate financing. This is intended to establish a fund to assist the poorest developing countries clean up their development and prepare for climate impacts through “adaptation”. 

The government has used extreme and needlessly inflammatory language about this potentially representing “socialism masquerading as environmentalism” and a mere wealth transfer from rich countries to poor. There is little to argue with their preferred framing of this as investment that requires proper governance, but Australia’s language and blunt statements that it can make no financial commitments at this meeting hasn’t helped, particularly as there are some crucial pre-2020 shortfalls in the jointly administered Adaptation Fund.

Further grievance was caused with reported comments that Australia said obligations for new, predictable and reliable finance from developed countries was “not realistic” and “not acceptable”. This earnt Australia a 'Fossil Award', awarded by non-government organisations, daily, to the country behaving the worst, for representing an attack on an important cornerstone without which “the entire international climate architecture falls apart".

Australia is in fact already festooned with 'Fossils'. It has been awarded four in the first five days, closing in on an all-time record. 

One of these was for setting out pre-emptive and restrictive conditions in measures to address what is called 'loss and damage'. This is an area of growing importance in the negotiations and the devastation in the Philippines rocketed it towards the top of priorities in these talks. Loss and damage relates to how the most vulnerable developing countries, who have contributed little of the carbon pollution driving climate change, will be assisted for actual climate impacts. This terrifies richer developed countries as they see potentially endless compensation claims.

Australia’s contribution, made just after expressing solidarity with the Philippines, listed no-go areas for discussion on this issue and a suggestion for shutting down the UN’s relevant work program. This was not well received and a key negotiating bloc, including China, has listed progress in this area as a red line issue for the talks.

Australia’s efforts were massively compounded by Japan’s revision of its 2020 emissions reduction target. Using the post-Tsunami shutdown of its nuclear industry as an excuse, Japan turned a commitment to a 25 per cent reduction into a 3 per cent increase. This bought considerable criticism from China and developing countries as well as European nations.

Tensions and positioning are not unusual at this stage of the talks but there has been an unusual degree of biffo. Perhaps unfortunately, you can’t red card one of the national players because if one goes then all go, but Australia and Japan are clearly on report. 

The danger for both is that they risk being marginalised from those seriously working on the agreement to avoidan extra two degrees warming in average global temperatures. Others are seriously working towards that goal and a 2015 global agreement that continues to ratchet trust, ambition and action towards it.

Australia needs to lift its performance in the second half of these talks and needs to clean up its intentions as well as its performance. Australia should clarify its position on targets, finance and loss and damage.

John Connor is chief executive of The Climate Institute