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Australia Remains Two-Faced in Climate Negotiations

By Ian Lowe

Australia is adopting double-speak as UN climate negotiations become more urgent.

While the Australian government has senior ministers in denial about the science of climate change, work is continuing internationally toward a global agreement to slow down the impacts. Some are sceptical about a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, but others think that only global agreement can avoid disastrous consequences.

The Ad Hoc Working Group developing the so-called Durban Platform for Enhanced Action met in Bonn in March. While there was predictably more talk than enhanced action, I found some of the reported discussion very interesting.

There is growing appreciation that progress needs to be made at this December’s Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, if a new agreement is to be reached at the 2015 Paris meeting. Equally, many countries argued that any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change depends on that agreement. So there was finally, after years of procrastination, a hint of urgency in the talks.

The Norwegian delegation noted that the target of keeping the increase in global average temperature below 2°C will not be reached without all countries contributing to mitigation efforts, so the 2015 agreement must be universal. Norway went on to call for each nation’s statement of its intended contributions to include the critical facts, including the emissions pledge, the base year, the percentage of national emissions covered, and the role of what can be seen as fudge-factors: the provisions for forestry, changes in land use and carbon credits.

Switzerland also called for “a legally binding agreement” that is “clear, transparent and understandable” while Bolivia said the new treaty should recognise “the integrity of Mother Earth”.

While those comments were unsurprising, I was very interested in the statements made by the Australian delegation. It joined Bangladesh to emphasise the need for confidence that all countries will contribute to greenhouse gas mitigation. Australia agreed with Turkey that each nation should determine its own approach, but then supported the Canadian view that those contributions should “take into account relevant factors, including capabilities,” with a lead taken by those “with the greatest capacity”.

That raises a really interesting political point. At the 1997 Kyoto conference, the Australian delegation used creative modelling to argue that equal targets would place a uniquely harsh economic cost on Australia, thus justifying a generous target. It is obvious to the international community that the argument was dishonest. With a very high output of greenhouse gases per unit of economic output, Australia can more easily make cost-effective reductions than most and so is one of those nations “with the greatest capacity” that should be taking a lead.

I will be interested to see how the government reconciles that international obligation with its continuing attempts to wind back the existing mitigation policies.

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During the recent elections in Tasmania and South Australia, I patiently scoured the policy statements for any mention of science, technology and innovation. While there were plenty of vague platitudes about economic development, there was very little specific about how this could be achieved.

The opposition parties in both states clearly believed the opinion polls, suggesting they would be swept into office by disenchantment with the previous governments. So they adopted a “small target” approach and made as few commitments as possible.

Once the votes were safely in, a member of South Australia’s Liberal Party wrote an opinion piece for The Advertiser, suggesting that South Australia should lower environmental standards and also “kick-start a nuclear industry” by offering to store radioactive waste. A previous state government actively opposed a Commonwealth proposal for such a scheme.

One of the few specific promises made by the incoming Tasmanian government was to try to undo the so-called forest peace agreement, the result of long and torturous negotiations between the timber industry, the trade union representing its workforce, environmental groups and the ALP governments in Canberra and Hobart. The Liberal Party can claim a clear mandate in its crushing election win, but opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority of Tasmanians don’t want to go back to trench warfare in the forests. Neither does the timber industry.

While the new government has said it won’t consult environmental groups, it is talking to its business supporters. I expect a face-saving compromise to be developed.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.