News & Current Affairs
09 December 2014
Abbott government accused of trying to set up climate change talks for failure
Australia’s insistence on legally binding emissions targets an ‘impossible requirement’ that would drive away the US and China, experts say
The Abbott government has been accused of setting impossible requirements for Australia’s participation in any global climate change agreement clinched in Paris next year by insisting it must include legally binding emissions targets.
Experts say the Paris agreement could require countries to enshrine their new post-2020 greenhouse emission reduction targets in domestic law but that any attempt to include those targets in the legally binding international treaty itself would drive away the world’s two biggest emitters – the US and China – and ensure that the process failed.
The foreign minister, Julie Bishop – who has revealed Tony Abbott knocked back her first request to attend the current preparatory meeting in Lima, Peru, and who is now to be “chaperoned” at that meeting by the trade minister, Andrew Robb – has said a Paris agreement must include binding targets. If it did not it would “amount to nothing more than aspirations”, she said.
“It seems like they are trying to set impossible conditions so that they can portray a successful Paris agreement as a failure,” said Frank Jotzo, associate professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School.
“Legally binding instruments can build confidence that countries will act on the commitments they make internationally. However, the legal form of an international agreement does not determine its effectiveness. The most binding treaty will do little to address climate change if some major emitters like the US and China do not participate.”
The former Labor government’s expert adviser on climate policy, Professor Ross Garnaut, said the government should “forget about” the idea of a legally binding treaty if it really wanted an effective climate outcome from Paris.
“A comprehensive legally binding agreement is not possible because that is not what the US does,” he said. “It is rare for the US to bind itself on anything. Woodrow Wilson was unable to get the US Senate to support membership of the League of Nations that was the creation of the United States.
“President Obama has made it clear that he will not support US participation in a legally binding agreement, and that instead the US has made a serious domestic commitment to implementing the ambitious objectives embodied in the Xi-Obama Agreement. China will not enter a legally binding agreement if the US does not. So forget about it.
“A legally binding agreement is of no value anyway, as, while it may be legally binding, such an agreement is not enforceable. Look at Canada’s walking away from its legally binding Kyoto commitments … and there is no evidence that countries are more likely to deliver on notionally legally binding than on domestic political commitments.
“Kyoto” refers to the Kyoto protocol which included countries’ greenhouse reduction commitments up to 2012.
The government’s own independent advisory body, the Climate Change Authority, said in a report: “One thing the Paris meeting will not deliver is a universal, prescriptive, enforcement-oriented legal agreement, similar in form to the existing Kyoto protocol. For one thing, such an outcome is not achievable in the short term.
“Insisting on it would likely be counter productive and lead to more modest global action. The value of the Paris outcome will be its effect on emissions and efforts over time, not its particular legal form.”
The government has unsuccessfully sought to abolish the Climate Change Authority.
The deputy director of the Climate Institute think tank, Erwin Jackson, said Australia’s insistence on legally binding targets was setting the process up for failure.
“Any agreement signed in Paris will be binding but the individual national targets almost certainly won’t be,” he said. “It may be that countries are required to enshrine their targets in domestic laws, but to suggest the targets need to be part of an internationally binding commitment is to set up an impossible requirement because it would ensure that the United States, China and probably India would not be able to participate.
“The test of a country’s commitment is whether it is prepared to pass domestic regulations to curb its own emissions. The United States and China have done that.
“Australia is going in the opposite direction. Its Direct Action policy contains no binding limits on emissions. This discussion about the need for legally binding international commitments is just a distraction and would be the worst possible thing for a successful global climate agreement.”
The government is also under fire for refusing to make any contributions to the Green Climate Fund, to which President Barack Obama pledged $3bn during his trip to Brisbane for the G20 summit. The government says it already pays for climate adaptation and mitigation through its foreign aid budget. It has not provided figures for that contribution and the budget document on the aid program contains passing references to a program in Tuvalu.
Australia sent no minister to last year’s international climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. It is believed that Robb’s job is to make sure Bishop does not go too far in committing Australia to climate action, and that Bishop is very unhappy at being accompanied.
Australia has said it will unveil a post-2020 emissions reduction target before the Paris talks, but most observers believe the Direct Action policy would struggle to deliver deeper cuts than the 5% reduction promised by 2020.
Under the former Labor government Australia provided about $200m a year to the so-called “fast start” program for climate change assistance to developing countries but that spending has been cut.