Australia comes in from the cold as Lima deal leaves lots to do

Handshakes as the Lima conference went into overtime to deliver an agreement. But there is still plenty of uncertainty about how next year’s Paris deal might look. EPA/COP20

The world is a step closer to a new climate agreement that will see all countries, not just developed ones, take action on greenhouse emissions after 2020. The two-week Lima climate summit, which ran two days beyond its scheduled Friday finish, was a reminder of just how hard it is to get all countries on board. But the process is largely on track, and Australia will be under scrutiny to come up with a meaningful post-2020 emissions target.

The Lima agreement asks countries to set out their climate pledges early next year. Yet it leaves wriggle-room for countries to submit late in the process and stops short of requiring countries to submit quantitative emissions targets. It also leaves many issues open, with time pressure rising to agree a deal by next December’s talks in Paris.

Detailed pledges

All countries will now be expected to provide details of their “intended nationally determined contribution” (iNDC) to global climate action, as agreed a year ago at the Warsaw conference. But the Lima text says that iNDCs “may” contain quantitative emissions targets, not that they have to. This is at the insistence of developing countries.

Previously there was an expectation that countries would table their pledges by the end of May 2015, followed by a review process and consultations. But countries are simply called on to deliver their pledges “well in advance”, with just a synthesis report prepared by the United Nations.

This may not affect what most countries do, because Europe, the United States and China have already revealed their national emissions targets for 2025 or 2030. This creates substantial pressure for others to follow suit.

‘Fair, ambitious and in light of circumstances’

Each country is called on to explain how its pledge is “fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention”. This will work to increase countries’ ambition and help show up any contributions that may be inadequate.

The text also notes the large gap between existing targets (for 2020) and the ambition to limit global warming to 2C, or indeed 1.5C. The forthcoming post-2020 pledges may well reveal an even greater gap between the agreed global warming goal and what individual countries are willing to commit themselves to.

The Lima conference also left some hard issues unresolved, in particular how to scale up climate finance. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord promised to deliver US$100 billion dollars a year to help developing countries deal with climate change. There is still no hint of whether and how the world will get there. This is worrying, especially to the poorest countries.

Dropping the ‘developed/developing’ divide

The most important task in global climate policy – and the hardest – is to get more climate action in developing countries.

The poorer countries would not accept a deal that puts the same onus on them as on rich countries. They point to the vastly higher capacity of rich countries, the fact that developed countries are responsible for the bulk of historic greenhouse emissions, and the expectation that climate change will hit poor people and regions harder.

This is why the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a pillar of the original 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Traditionally, countries were split into two groups, with only developed nations required to cut emissions.

Things are no longer so black-and-white. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord was already accompanied by emissions pledges from developed and developing countries. Now, the expression “in light of its national circumstances” from Lima could be a game-changer. No longer is there a strict distinction of two groups of countries.

The central recognition of differing circumstances will encourage countries to make nuanced pledges. And it could facilitate strong ambition from some developing countries without being seen to break ranks with others who feel they cannot go as quickly or as far.

China’s pledge not to grow its emissions beyond 2030 is significant. China sees economic opportunities in low-carbon growth.

A recent Chinese report under the New Climate Economy project spelt out that “China will lead the world to by providing a blueprint for a new climate economy”. China is setting out to create an example for other industrializing countries to follow.

Countries further down the income scale will also take inspiration from this. As the global Deep Decarbonization Pathways analysis has shown, all major countries could readily and drastically cut the carbon intensity of their energy systems. Current low-income countries do not need to go through the high-carbon phase that defined most industrialized countries' economies. But they will need extra up-front investment in greener technology.

Australia’s re-engagement on climate change

Presumed inaction in China, the United States and elsewhere has long been the staple argument by those in Australia who oppose strong action to cut emissions. That argument is demonstrably wrong, and over recent weeks we have seen the Australian government re-engage with global climate policy.

Just two months ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared coal to be “good for humanity”, while refusing to contribute to the Green Climate Fund. It was not certain that Australia would pledge any meaningful emissions cuts beyond 2020.

Now the PM has changed his stance, saying: “We all are doing what we can, Australia as well, and we need a strong and effective agreement from Paris next year”. Australia has pledged A$200 million to the Green Climate Fund. A task force is to be set up in the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to work on Australia’s emissions pledge, giving the issue more prominence in Canberra’s policy machinery.

Thus an untenable policy position has crumbled under international pressure. It took a lot to get there: the joint US-China emissions announcement, a blunt speech by US President Barack Obama in Brisbane, and a direct rebuke from China over climate finance.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop heralded the change, insisting on going to Lima in defiance of orders from the PM’s office. Bishop would be particularly aware of the repercussions of a recalcitrant stance on climate change, and is clearly in no mood to let the climate issue further blemish Australia’s international standing.

Australia’s Lima performance

Three aspects of Australian government announcements and pronouncements at Lima stand out.

First, Australia’s pledge of A$200 million to the climate fund. Compared with the US pledge of US$3 billion (A$3.65 billion) and Canada’s CAN$300 million (A$315 million), and given that Australia is now among the world’s richest countries and the highest per capita emitter, this is at the low end of what Australia can get away with, but nevertheless an important signal of good faith.

Second, comments on China. Bishop initially claimed that China’s pledge to stop growing its emissions by 2030 was “business as usual”, but later qualified that assessment. Most analyses find that peak carbon by 2030 is achievable but requires strong policies to cut coal use and power consumption. It’s certainly not ‘doing nothing until 2030’. Policy action to improve energy efficiency, cut coal use and increase renewable power has been underway for some time.

Third, the call by Australia for next year’s Paris agreement to feature legally binding emissions targets. Curiously, Australia echoes the European position on this, which is widely seen as an ambit claim. There is no realistic prospect of legally binding targets, because the US Congress would not ratify such a treaty, and China will not do so without the United States. In any case, legal bindingness at the international level is not needed to achieve national action.

So why would Australia call for binding targets? Given the overall reluctant stance on climate policy, the most plausible explanation is that the government wants to be able to dismiss the Paris agreement because targets will not be binding.

Whatever the rhetoric, Australia will be expected to deliver an emissions target for 2025 or 2030. It will be scrutinised at home and abroad. The first point of comparison will be the US pledge of a 26-28% reduction by 2025 compared to 2005.

The US 2025 pledge is not a sufficient contribution to a global outcome of keeping warming below 2C, and there is a strong argument for Australia to make a contribution that is in line with strong global climate action. The Climate Change Authority sees a proportional contribution to a 2C outcome as a 30-40% reduction at 2025 relative to 2000 (about 35-45% relative to 2005).

In any case, the US target will be a crucial reference point for Australia’s post-2020 target. Australia is richer, has higher per capita emissions and is more vulnerable to climate change than the United States.

It would be difficult to justify an Australian pledge that is weaker than America’s.