Australia and the International Contribution to Climate Change

Almost 200 countries have converged on Doha, Qatar for the United Nations Climate Conference (COP18) which commences today. They have gathered in the hopes of finding a solution to cataclysmic climate change and avoid the 4 degree warmer world that the World Bank’s latest report projects we are on track to hit by 2100 if we continue business as usual.

Australia has an odd self perception when it comes to a number of international issues. We consistently think that we are harder done by, we are compelled to do more work than other countries and we are perpetually more vulnerable. Recently, we have seen this most acutely in the debates earlier this year around the carbon price and ongoingly this rhetoric of victimisation emerges when we discuss asylum seekers arriving by boat.

It’s always “Why us?”, “They’ll take our jobs”, “We don’t have room”, “Why not elsewhere?”

And when it comes to climate change it is the all too familiar “But we only contribute 1.5% of global emissions”, “We should only act when big polluters like China act”, “Our emissions mean nothing compared to the rest of the world”.

The reality of Australia’s historic contribution to climate change and our current potential to contribute to positive change is a very different story.

Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter. When you take into account all the coal that we ship all over the world which is not burnt in Australia, but is burnt elsewhere – our global emissions suddenly sky rocket. We leap from a seemingly modest 1.5% of global emissions to almost 5%.

The UN Climate Conferences have been taking place in their current form for 17 years (more general discussions about the environment have been taking place for longer) and are generally a hot pot of competing national interests, juggling trade and economic expectations and varying degrees of genuine ambition to deal with the immanent climate change crisis. Australia tends to participate in good faith but with a decided lack of leadership.

This year is no different.

There has been buzzing in the media lately about Australia’s uncertainty regarding signing on to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Procotol is the only, existing legally binding treaty to reduce emissions in the world. Whilst alone it falls well short of even making a dent in the sort of emission reductions neeeded to avoid runaway climate change; it is a pivotal intermediate step to get developed countries committing to reduction targets and moving towards a binding treaty in 2015.

Last week Australia finally announced that it would (conditionally) ratify the Kyoto Convention and commit to a 5% emissions reduction on 2000 base levels by 2020. The ambition displayed in a 5% reduction is pretty deplorable considering that Australia is the sunniest and one of the windiest countries in the world and could be doing far, far more to reduce its emissions and encourage other countries to do the same.

But, just in today from Senate back home, the Minister representing the Minister for Climate Chance, Minister Ludwig announced in response to Senator Christine Milne’s question that Australia will only commit to a 99.5% reduction on 1990 levels which is, in real terms, less than the already lack lustre 5% reduction commitment. COP has not even officially started here in Doha and this is certainly not a good sign for those hoping Australia would lift its game this year.

Al Jazeera have released an excellent infographic that compares each country’s ambition and emissions to one another that clearly shows Australia’s disproportionately high per-capita current carbon emissions; and comparatively weak efforts to contribute to the collective efforts to keep global warming within the safe 1.5C – 2C threshold.

The other two big issues likely to arise at this years COP18 are financing and mitigation/adaptation support from developed countries (who are historically are most responsible for climate change) to developing countries (who are often juggling with a range of national priorities such as establishing universal education, basic infrastructure, improving economic growth etc.) Australia’s contribution to the Fast Start Climate Fund (a short term ‘kick start’ initiative which comes to an end this year) has been formidable. The question that hangs in the air in Doha, is how the Fast Start Climate Fund will transitions into the Green Climate Fund which will contribute to the long term support of developing countries. The Green Climate Fund has been empty for the last three climate conferences, hopefully Doha will see some substantive progress in either getting the money in the bank or at the very least securing pledges from contributing nations.

Australia has a huge capacity to inspire progress in Doha. The notable absence of our Minister for Climate Change from the conference is disappointing and the announcement this morning (Doha time) of Australia’s lack of Kyoto ambition sets a somewhat somber tone for the start of COP18. We have come a long way garnering widespread, global support for action on climate change. However, time is of the essence and it is time for countries like Australia with the resources for a low carbon economy at their fingertips to show leadership, ambition and humanity when it comes to tackling climate change.

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