It is unfair, undiplomatic, and counterproductive for Australia to make targets more ambitious than 5% conditional on the actions of other countries, particularly poorer countries. If all countries wait for others to lead, nobody ever will.
The internationally-agreed principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” obligates the world’s richest and highest per-capita emitters to show leadership. Australia is a developed country which has emerged well from the global financial crisis. Its greenhouse gas emissions are the 15th largest in the world and the highest per capita in the OECD. Its cumulative historical emissions are the 14th highest in the world. Its emissions excluding LULUCF have risen 32% since 1990 (ie. during a period when harm was foreseeable). Australia is also the world’s largest coal exporter. Australia’s wealth and high responsibility for emissions oblige us to act faster than the global average.
Moreover, Australia’s long list of specific conditions are highly unreasonable and unlikely to ever be fully met. Poor countries are unlikely to ever be impressed by conditional emissions targets from Australia, let alone targets so weak and conditions so demanding from a country which has flouted its responsibility to lead for two decades.
Conditional targets are not an effective way of driving global ambition; if anything, they are making global ambition less likely, by antagonizing countries who rightly expect Australia to act responsibly. Australia’s conditional targets have failed to incentivize other countries to raise their ambition, as those targets have now been on the table for over four years and there has been no significant movement from other countries.
The world’s governments are scheduled to agree ambitious 2020 targets in 2014, and post-2020 targets in 2015. Disturbingly, despite the need for rapid emissions cuts before 2020, governments seem to be forgetting to raise pre-2020 ambition and instead focusing on post-2020 targets. If Australia continues to insist on a weak target for itself, it will contribute to the global institutionalization of inadequate action until 2020 or beyond.
Leadership is required to break the international deadlock and generate momentum for global action on the necessary scale. Thus the abysmal state of global action, far from being an excuse for inaction, is a reason for Australia to act ambitiously, unilaterally, and unconditionally – not in 2015 or 2020 but now, when it matters most. Australia should be a leader, not a follower.