After its first few months, the Abbott Government's domestic and international climate credibility is threadbare, as is its commitment to commercialising clean energy alternatives. Threadbare, but not yet in complete tatters. This year will be revealing.
2014 will determine whether the Abbott Government follows the conservative Canadian Government's disregard for international commitments and alternatives to fossil fuels, or whether the Government fashions a less reckless path, if not a more constructive one.
The diplomatic agenda for 2014 will put Australia's choices in an international spotlight against a backdrop of increasing action and ambition in and between China and the US.
In April, countries under the Kyoto Protocol are to submit proposals for raising the 2020 emission reduction targets they pledged under the second commitment period. To its credit, the Government hasn't formally withdrawn its commitment consistent with the minimum 5% reduction below 2000 levels or even its commitment to potentially go higher. Australia hasn't, however, moved to ratify this second commitment and April will be a test, as will June when ministers are due to meet to discuss those proposals.
In September, the Prime Minister and other world leaders are expected to come with 'bold' pre- and post-2020 carbon reduction pledges to a summit hosted by the UN Secretary General in New York. In December the annual climate negotiations, this year in Peru, will focus on sharpening the rules for review of comparisons.
The G20 in Brisbane is bookended by these meetings. Previous G20s have tackled fossil fuel subsidies and HFCs, but all indications are the Government would like to avoid discussing climate change altogether. They might not be able to.
Since the Coalition turned against carbon pricing back in 2009, things have changed. Most notably, and particularly in the last 12 months, the world's biggest emitters have moved from obstructionism to action. China is investing furiously in renewable energy, clamping down on air pollution and rolling out regional carbon trading schemes (five so far with more expected). With domestic and cross-border concern about the country's toxic environment growing, the government remains under pressure to produce results.
In the US, the Obama Administration has regulated emissions from vehicles and new power plants, and will this year tackle existing power plants. Secretary of State John Kerry has made climate change a foreign policy priority, reportedly requiring it to be discussed in every meeting between senior American and foreign officials. President Obama highlighted the economic and moral importance of such action in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday.
Even Europe, despite showing signs of leadership fatigue, has proposed to cut its domestic emissions by 40% by 2030. This is a reminder that deeper cuts are required post-2020 from all nations, even if this target will need to be supplemented by international reductions to be a credible contribution to the global goal of avoiding two degrees of warming.
Australia, by contrast, is poised to become the first country in the world to dismantle a functioning carbon market. It is at best sending mixed messages on renewable energy, and rarely talks about the full pollution reduction target range of 5-25% which the Coalition had previously – and repeatedly – supported.
Since the federal election, Australia’s climate diplomacy has consisted of: rejecting support for a global fund to help poor countries deal with climate change (even though Australia was represented as a fund co-chair until December); appearing to backtrack from the carbon cutting pledges inscribed in various international agreements; and cutting foreign aid for climate initiatives and to countries particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.
These moves and the intended repeal of the carbon laws have already impacted international confidence and drawn widespread ire. The Government's alternative plan is struggling to take shape, deepening credibility concerns about the ability to reach international commitments. International climate negotiations aren't just a sandbox on the sidelines of 'real' trade and economic discussions. They are deeply enmeshed. Bad blood in one risks blowback in others.
Canada's bad form is partly overlooked because it is so enmeshed with the US and because of its more decentralised federal system (which does include some states adopting carbon pricing). It is a risky choice to adopt that fashion in a region which, as the Asian Century White Paper conservatively noted, is vulnerable to climate impacts, but also is increasingly the epicentre of clean energy investment.
In 2014 it will be international as well as domestic events that will fully reveal the cut of the Government's climate cloth.
Photo by Flickr user Oregon Department of Transportation.