The challenge: to go from climate laggard to climate leader

The Age, 27th November

LABOR’S exceptional victory is built on its core promises, and tackling climate change is one of them. Kevin Rudd has promised that one of his first acts in government will be to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This will come as a welcome relief to most Australians. We have been suffering from deferred ratification for a long time, and the move is 10 years overdue.

However, while in the conservative context of Australian climate politics ratification may seem like one giant leap for Australians, it is now only a modest step for mankind (and other species).

The annual meeting of parties of the UN Climate Change Convention begins in Bali next Monday. For the first time in a decade, Australia — with its delegation led by our prime minister — will sit as a credible participant in debates over the Earth’s climate future. What positions and targets will we support?

The only serious proposition on the table at Bali comes from the European Union. The EU has proposed a target for developed countries to cut their collective emissions by 30% below 1990 levels by 2020. Although this target is conservative, it is still well beyond what has been acceptable in Australia to date. How will we respond?

In the leaders’ debate, late in October, Rudd stood by Labor’s long-term goal of cutting Australia’s emissions by 60% (against 2000 levels) by 2050 because “it comes from the science” that tells us to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 to 490 parts per million. Scientists agree that 450 ppm is the critical threshold for keeping the average global temperature increase below 2 degrees and avoiding dangerous climate change.

The clear message of the latest Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change report — reinforced by the accelerating loss of our polar caps — is that global emissions must peak by 2015 and then be cut by between 50% and 85% by 2050 to contain temperature increases at 2 to 2.4 degrees.

But to create the necessary “emissions space” for countries such as China and India to develop, larger and earlier reductions are required from industrialised countries (including Australia) — reductions in the order of 80 to 95% by 2050 at the latest.

All this casts the EU’s proposition and Labor’s long-term emissions target in a new light. Labor’s 2050 target promises unacceptable temperature increases of 3 degrees — climate catastrophe, according to the IPCC. Even a temperature rise of 2 degrees would condemn the Great Barrier Reef to extinction. Clearly Labor must deliver cuts much deeper and faster than its long-term target suggests.

A second possible issue for Rudd is his rejection of a climate deal without “clear-cut commitments” from developing countries. It is unclear what this might mean. There is absolutely no support for a deal that includes mandatory emissions reduction targets for China, India or Brazil among any of the groups at Bali — except the United States. There are no “commitments” on the table.

Everyone agrees, for instance, that China’s emissions pose a problem (while overlooking how a significant proportion of Chinese emissions come from manufacturing goods exported to Western consumers). Nevertheless, there is no serious plan to woo these emitters to adopt even voluntary targets, despite the urgency of doing so.

There are ways around these impasses, and opportunities for Australia to — at last — show real international climate leadership. First, the Australian delegation must at minimum support the EU’s proposed target of minus 30% by 2020. That position best reflects what the science is telling us.

Second, because there will be no agreement that includes targets for developing countries, Rudd should propose a subtler and more creative alternative. The major emerging emitters — especially China — are aware of and anxious about the domestic impacts of global warming, to which they increasingly contribute. But they are compelled to raise their low standards of living. To escape this dilemma, they require massive financial and technological assistance to help them meet blossoming energy needs without emissions then spinning out of control.

Australia could propose the establishment of a substantial global fund (perhaps based on carbon taxes on imported goods) to assist them. This would be a real step forward — unlike the cosmetic, underfunded and targetless Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate strongly promoted by John Howard. An international fund for investment in renewable energy and efficiency measures in China, India and Brazil would offer an incentive and means for action. Its development would make strong voluntary targets by these emergent emitters much more likely in the future.

Finally, our prime minister could use Bali to propose a regional climate pact under the umbrella of the Kyoto regime. Including developed countries (Australia, New Zealand) and developing states (Indonesia, Papua New Guinea , East Timor and near Pacific states), it would cover about 12% of the planet’s greenhouse emissions. Properly funded, and possibly with a strong collective target, it would strengthen regional environmental security and economic relations while tackling the significant emerging local problems of climate mitigation and adaptation.

When it comes to tackling global warming, leadership over the next 12 months is critical. Kevin Rudd, now is the time for Australia to lead a “climate revolution” overseas as well as at home.

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