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Dec 15 2014

Australia continues climate obstructionism in Lima

The COP20 climate talks in Lima, Peru concluded yesterday. It will take a while to sift through the outcomes and figure out what they mean, but for now I want to concentrate on the Australian government, which has unsurprisingly continued its crusade against climate action.

Unlike last year when Australia didn’t bother to send a minister to the talks, this time around we’re sending two. Unfortunately neither of them is the Environment Minister: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb. Both of them are climate change deniers, and they are accompanied by BHP lobbyists.

According to news reports, this unusual arrangement is due to a power struggle between Bishop, PM Tony Abbott, his Cabinet, and his chief of staff Peta Credlin. Credlin blocked Bishop’s initial proposal to attend the conference, Bishop bypassed Credlin by securing Cabinet’s approval, and Abbott personally requested that she be chaperoned by Robb. Robb was a key player in installing Abbott as Liberal Party leader five years ago. It’s unclear whether this intrigue is over policy differences or simply power. Reportedly Bishop’s reason for attending is so Australia doesn’t look bad for not attending, but on the other hand Abbott is apparently concerned that Bishop might agree to something “too green”.

There is little danger of that. Australia has been declared the world’s worst-performing developed country in a new Climate Change Performance Index report from think-tank Germanwatch and Climate Action Network (CAN). Denmark came in at fourth place, with the top three rankings left blank to symbolize the reality that no country is doing anywhere near enough.

CAN has also granted Australia five Fossil of the Day awards. The first and third were for refusing to contribute finance to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – more on that in a moment. The second was for arguing that the promised “loss and damage” mechanism should be merely part of adaptation. The fourth was for trying to remove from the negotiating text any mentions of “global solidarity” and the agreed goal to limit global warming to below 1.5-2°C above preindustrial, saying they do not understand the concept of a temperature limit. The fifth was because Robb told an audience of Australian businesspeople that Australia won’t sign up to next year’s agreement if it disadvantages us relative to our “major trade competitors” (who apparently now include Saudi Arabia, the most anti-climate country of all). Finally, Australia received the Fossil of the Year award for all of the above and more.

Midweek, Bishop did a minor backflip and announced $200 million over four years for the GCF. This is surprising because Abbott previously compared the GCF to the domestic $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) which he is trying to abolish. But Australia’s GCF pledge is merely redirected from the existing foreign aid budget, which the Abbott government has already cut by $7.6 billion (and will cut yet again in today’s budget update). This will not be appreciated by poor countries who need new funding to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Anyway, $50 million per year is not much compared to the $100 billion per year by 2020 that the developed world promised to deliver, and Robb has assured business lobbyists there will be no more funding.

Greens leader Christine Milne suggests the money is merely an attempt by Australia to buy influence in the talks. I agree. Just as Abbott tried to deflect attention from his inequitable budget with an insignificant deficit tax, now he’s trying to misdirect our attention away from his systematic sabotaging of climate action. It’s blatant tokenism and, like the deficit tax, it won’t work.

To add to this dishonest hypocrisy, Bishop bragged to the conference about the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and Renewable Energy Target (RET), failing to mention that the government wants to abolish ARENA and sabotage the RET. (Similarly, last month Abbott bragged to the G20 about CEFC and forgot to mention he wants to abolish that too.) I continue to be astounded by the government’s brazenness in telling different things to different audiences, and I hope nobody is fooled. At least Bishop acknowledged the RET is supposed to be “at least” 20%, something the government has been denying all year. Bishop also didn’t mention Australia’s ongoing expansion of fossil fuel exports. Though technically the UN accounting system doesn’t consider Australia responsible for the climate impacts, in reality our fossil fuel exports will massively increase global warming.

Simultaneously, Abbott announced a taskforce in the Prime Minister’s department to propose a possible post-2020 emissions target for Australia to announce in mid-2015 (several months after the UN deadline). Abbott has ignored advice from the Climate Change Authority (CCA) to cut emissions 19% below 2000 by 2020 and 40-60% by 2030 (though CCA’s targets are not as impressive as they sound, for reasons that will become clear in a moment). This decision parallels the approach Abbott has taken to the RET, ignoring CCA’s (again inadequate) advice to maintain the present RET and instead employing climate denier Dick Warburton to come up with the predetermined conclusion that it should be slashed.

Abbott’s and Bishop’s press releases referred to the conference as the “UNCCC” for “United Nations Climate Change Conference”. Its correct name is, of course, the 20th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP20). This is the latest in a long line of incompetent factual errors and laughably simplistic documents put out by this government. I don’t know how anyone can perceive the government’s statements as in any way authoritative when they can’t even remember the correct name for a body that has existed for 22 years.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC), and Norway called for the world to set a target to phase out fossil fuels by 2050 (and AOSIS countries are already pledging to do this). This is the kind of action needed to keep global warming below 2°C (let alone to restore a truly safe climate, which requires more rapid emissions cuts and removing carbon from the atmosphere). Yet Bishop ridiculed the proposal: “How could one possibly commit to having a fossil fuel free world by 2050?”

On Thursday, Climate Action Tracker released a report confirming what we already knew: Australia’s emissions are on track to go up, not down. Our annual emissions from energy and industrial sources are already 31% higher than in 1990, because a previous Australian government inserted a clause in the Kyoto Protocol that allowed us to meet our first Kyoto target through pre-existing land carbon storage without reducing these more permanent emissions. Even if Australia achieves its pathetic voluntary pledge of 5% below 2000 by 2020 (which it won’t under current policies), its energy and industry emissions in 2020 will still be 26% above 1990 levels. Australia’s mandatory Kyoto Protocol target, 0.5% below 1990 during 2013-2020, is even less stringent: our surplus emissions permits from land use reduction, among other accounting loopholes, could allow our energy and industry emissions to rise to 54% above 1990 by 2020. In Lima, Robb and Bishop pleaded for even more creative accounting, trying to get out of a 2012 Kyoto Protocol amendment limiting the amount of surplus permits allowed to be carried over from the first period. If I understand correctly, this issue has been effectively deferred to next June. If Australia succeeds, its allowed emissions in 2020 would increase by another 5% to a total of 59% above 2020.

Accordingly, Climate Action Tracker estimates that current policies put Australia’s energy and industrial emissions on track to 49-57% above 1990 by 2020, equivalent to 12-18% above 2000 and 14-20% above 2012. All independent analyses show the Australian government’s pathetic Emissions Reduction Fund will make barely a dent in this trend (not that we’re likely to know, because the money will be allocated in secret). So if Abbott stays in power he can basically sit back and do nothing, then in 2020 boast that Australia has achieved its international obligations.

Australia’s attempts to sabotage the climate talks are appalling, but it would be unwise to assume that other governments are doing much better. In September I pointed out that it is no use arguing Australia should get on the bandwagon with the rest of the world, because there was no adequate bandwagon to get on. That statement now requires a slight update. In the three months between New York and Lima, the level of international ambition has measurably improved for the first time since 2009, due to new post-2020 targets announced by China, US, and EU. But the magnitude of the improvement is small: a few tenths of a degree. And as I said in September, the urgent need to ramp up action before 2020 seems to have fallen off the radar completely (indeed it is another issue Australia has helped delete from the text).

Meanwhile, diplomats from other countries should be aware the Australian government has little support at home:

Barnaby Joyce reportedly said last week: “we’ll say a prayer to the dear Lord that the drought finishes”. Unfortunately prayer won’t stop droughts getting ever worse as the world warms – and it’s also about the only thing that could save the Abbott government.

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