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Climate change diplomacy: Missing our big chance

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COMMENTS

19 December 2008 09:02

Fergus Green has been a research analyst at an energy and resources consultancy. He recently completed an internship at the Lowy Institute, where he worked on the forthcoming Review of Australia’s Instruments of Foreign Policy.

Thanks to Hugh White for zeroing in on the most important issue in Australia’s climate change debate: what can and should Australia do to secure global action that will avoid dangerous climate change? While I believe a universal post-Kyoto treaty is not necessarily the best global approach, that is where the action is for now. Accordingly, getting the best possible outcome from the Copenhagen Conference should be the focus of Australia’s efforts in 2009.

It is frustrating, then, that public debate in Australia has focused on the Government’s domestic climate change initiatives rather than on its international efforts. So I hope Hugh’s post will elicit some debate on The Interpreter about the sorts of diplomatic action the Government should be taking.

Prime Minister Rudd recently stated that he wants Australia’s diplomacy to be the best in the world and that it should be funded accordingly. Moreover, the Government has pioneered a diplomatic institution in the nuclear field with similar consensus-building goals. Investing greater resources and creative energy into climate diplomacy would thus be both prudent and consistent with the Government’s identity and objectives.

However, the need to focus attention on the Government’s international agenda does not mean Australia’s domestic climate change policies are irrelevant. Rather, it would be more fruitful if the domestic debate were concerned with identifying the domestic emissions reduction targets and other policies that would best support Australia’s diplomatic strategy. It is in this sense that the Rudd Government’s recently announced 2020 greenhouse reduction targets of 5-15% can be critiqued.

We know that, as one of the countries that will be most adversely affected by climate change, it is in Australia’s interest for countries to agree to the deepest possible cuts to their emissions. This much was confirmed in the Garnaut Review, which recommended that Australia offer to play its full proportionate part in the strongest possible international agreement (Garnaut focused on an agreement consistent with atmospheric stabilisation at 450ppm CO2 equivalent).

However, the Government appears to have ignored this recommendation by announcing that the maximum 2020 reduction target it will pursue will be 15% on 2000 levels, and this only in the event that developed countries agree to 'comparable' reductions. But won’t this undercut Australia’s ability to negotiate the strongest possible international agreement? Will our diplomats have any credibility if they try to persuade other countries to cut more than 15% of their emissions?

The White Paper seemingly anticipates this charge and defends the 15% upper limit on the basis that 'the Government also accepts the Garnaut Final Report’s judgment that securing global agreement to emissions reductions of this magnitude [450ppm] appears unlikely in the near future'. But the Government’s selective reliance on Garnaut’s judgement is disingenuous: Garnaut did not intend that the Government give up at least pushing for a stronger (eg 450ppm) agreement. In fact, Garnaut’s Final Report states:

In the short term … a 450[ppm] agreement seems out of reach, unless developments over the next year transform the attitudes of developed and developing countries alike. Of course, major changes in the political outlook are not out of the question, with a new US President and Congress, a Chinese government beginning to make progress on its own energy efficiency and low-emissions energy goals, and the recent scientific evidence underlining the urgency of the question. Australia should encourage this possibility by announcing its preparedness to make its proportionate contribution—an absolute reduction in entitlements of 25 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020—if there is an effective global agreement around 450.

Challenging as the negotiations have proved, it would be irresponsible for the Government not to do everything in its power to achieve the strongest possible global outcome. Yet the Government (not Garnaut) seems resigned to the impossibility of (creative, activist, concerted) diplomacy achieving a strong, '450' agreement.

Almost as an afterthought, the White Paper makes a final attempt to allay this perception by stating that:

If a global agreement does emerge over time involving commitments…that are consistent with long-term stabilisation of atmospheric concentrations of 450ppm or lower, Australia would continue to play its full part in achieving ambitious stabilisation levels by establishing appropriate post-2020 emissions reductions targets.

But such a promise is surely not likely to be viewed as credible by other countries, so it won’t solve the problem of the 15% target potentially undercutting our ability to negotiate a strong agreement over the short-medium term. Moreover, this approach assumes Australia would at most be a passive object of a strong global agreement rather than a contributor to its negotiation. Such a stance seems to fly in the face of the Government’s purported 'creative middle power' credentials.

I would be interested to hear from others, especially those with experience of multilateral diplomacy or those closer to the current climate change negotiations, as to 1) the sorts of diplomatic actions the Government should be taking beyond its current efforts; 2) the most appropriate domestic policies Australia could adopt in support of an activist diplomatic agenda; and 3) the likely effects of the Government’s stated domestic policies, especially the 15% maximum reduction target, on its diplomatic efforts.

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