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Byron Shire
March 6, 2021

Abbott’s climate homework: must try harder

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UNFCCC Secretary Christiana Figueres (L) and Polish Environment Minister and COP19 President Marcin Korolec (R) during a meeting at the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland,  November 22.   Photo: EPA/Bartolmiej Zboroski
UNFCCC secretary Christiana Figueres (L) and Polish environment minister and COP19 president Marcin Korolec (R) during a meeting at the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, November 22. Photo: EPA/Bartolmiej Zboroski

Giles Parkinson, Editor, RenewEconomy

Tony Abbott has some homework to do. Over the next 15 months he is going to have to figure out how it is that Australia will meet its contribution to a new treaty that aims to limit global warming to 2°C.

He’s not the only one. More than 190 nations associated with the UN climate talks agreed on Saturday on a series of milestones that will hopefully take the world to a meaningful climate agreement in Paris in 2015. As part of that agreement, ministers will meet in June next year, country leaders in September, and by the first quarter of 2015 they will need to lay their targets on the table.

For Abbott this could be quite a challenge. Firstly, Australia, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and the biggest emitter per capita of any industrialised nation, will be expected to pull its weight. After all, it has been encapsulated in the country’s own bipartisan policy.

But over the next six months, Abbott intends to trash the very mechanisms that could deliver this increased ambition – the carbon price, the renewable energy target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – along with the independent advisory body, the Climate Change Authority, that could possibly counter the advice from his inner circle of mad ideologues to whom the words climate change, green and clean energy are as inflammatory as the names Fairfax and the ABC.

Perhaps Abbott could start his homework by writing out 100 times on a blackboard that climate change is real and he is expected to pull his weight to do something about it. Or he could look at a new report sponsored by his own government that suggests that renewables could deliver half the abatement required by 2030.

The 19th edition of international climate talks closed in Warsaw on Saturday afternoon with typical drama and compromise. It has already been dissed as a conference that lacked ambition and resolve, but there were never any great expectations – it was only really framed as a meeting that should tie up loose ends and remove obstacles that stood in the way of an agreement in Paris in 2015.

In the end, the UNFCCC talks in Warsaw removed some of those obstacles and fudged on others – notably, the word commitment was diluted to contribution, and the milestones were not as clear as some would want. There was an air of mistrust at these talks – even worse than at Doha – that was exacerbated by the backtracking and unhelpful rhetoric of Australia, Japan and Canada.

But the conference did deliver on a few key points. The REDD+ mechanism to protect forests was delivered – in quite spectacular style as it turned out when Papua New Guinea, the only country arguing for weak regulation, found itself talking to an empty room when all other negotiators walked out. There was progress too on MRV – the mechanism that will validate emissions reductions. These are good signs.

And so, too, was the US intervention to short-circuit Australia’s efforts to stop a new institution being created to manage the issue of Loss and Damage (the mechanism that will look at compensation to countries badly affected by climate change. Although, contrary to what The Australian wrote on the weekend, there is no $100 billion budget, or requirement for Australia to pay $3 billion a year. If that is why Abbott’s staff oppose it so bitterly, then they should broaden their reading.)

And, despite Australia’s efforts once again, there was even progress on the Green Climate Fund, which is a $100 billion institution (which Abbott unhelpfully labels the Bob Brown Bank). Again, that progress appears to have been facilitated by the US. You can start to see where the Obama government is heading on this. It’s not the same direction as Australia.

This is where the Abbott government needs to learn how to tread a fine line. Hopefully, Abbott is learning that there needs to be a difference in the sort of rhetoric you might indulge Alan Jones in a radio interview, and the messaging you take to the international stage.

That’s the failure of Direct Action – it is a policy (more of a slogan, really) you create when either you don’t accept the science of climate change, or don’t believe the world will act. Its principal function is to protect the interests of incumbent polluting industries; because it does not send an economy-wide signal for a transition to a low-carbon economy, and simply doles out favours judged by a government committee, it’s a massive bet on the future of Australia’s economy. Even industry realises that this policy does them no long-term favours.

As Howard Bamsey, a former senior negotiator for Australia at the climate talks and now CEO of the Korean-based Global Green Growth Institute, said during the meeting: ‘When it comes, the change will happen with a rush. If investors get the future wrong, many of their assets will be stranded. If you’re one of the leaders in your economy, you must be hedging your bets.’

This is true of country economies as well as business: ‘Responding vigorously to climate change can be a pathway to prosperity… if (countries) choose investment strategies wisely, sustainable development can be an accelerator in lifting people out of poverty,’ Bamsey said. And Australia is no less immune to those changes.

On the international stage, in the climate change arena, Australia’s reputation has been shattered. RenewEconomy spoke to numerous delegations from Asia, the island states and Africa, and the attitude is venomous. European delegations are simply dumbfounded, and the real big movers – China and the US – will simply laugh Abbott out of the room if he pretends to try to broker a deal between the two.

That criticism has now spilled to the public arena. The island states lamented the return of climate denial; the EU questioned what role Australia was playing in the talks; and the Chinese were astonished that Australia was ending its carbon-pricing regime just as they were introducing theirs and looking to set up a regional market.

* This piece first appeared at RenewEconomy. Giles Parkinson has been in Poland for the talks.


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