Australia in the spotlight at climate talks, for all the wrong reasons

Australia has faced tough questions over whether it is doing its part to cut greenhouse emissions. CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Australia yesterday received a grilling at the United Nations’ midyear climate negotiations in Bonn. Detailed questions were asked about its emissions reductions ambitions, its fair share of global effort, and whether the government’s domestic policies can deliver.

Looking at the questions and answers, and who asked the questions, what can we learn about Australia’s current standing in this year of crucial international climate negotiations?

Australia’s trading partners are concerned

This week and next in Bonn, Germany, all countries are meeting to advance discussions and negotiations leading to the final agreement-making process in Paris in December.

While the Paris summit will focus on a global agreement on post-2020 commitments for emissions reductions, sessions in Bonn have also included presentations and questions on countries’ progress to meeting their 2020 emission-reduction targets.

China plainly highlighted that Australia cannot expect to be on the sidelines of these international negotiations, with the Chinese delegate remarking that “Australia is really important to this process - it has got the most questions”!

Following a presentation by the Australian government, countries including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, Switzerland, Fiji, and New Zealand all asked detailed questions.

It’s worth reflecting that most of these countries are Australia’s major trading partners, and not just smaller nations that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Many questions focused on Australia’s ambition to reduce emissions by 2020, whether it represents a fair share of global effort, and whether it has the right domestic policies in place to do it.

All countries commended the Australian government’s transparency in putting forward emissions-reduction targets and policies. But Australia was subject to critical questioning by several nations who directly or indirectly raised questions about the adequacy and fairness of Australia’s unconditional target to cut emissions by 5% relative to 2000 levels by 2020.

They also sought to clarify whether Australia’s existing conditional targets, of 15-25% emissions reductions by 2020, were still on the table.

The government defended the 5% target as “fair”, and confirmed that the conditional targets as submitted to the United Nations were still on the table:

The focus is very much on our post-2020 target but at the same time the conditional aspects of the 2020 pledge remain under consideration.

Australia’s 5% target compared with other baselines. Climate Change Authority, CC BY
EU and US targets compared across different baselines. Climate Change Authority, CC BY

Setting double standards?

China said that Australia’s 5% target shows it’s “ambition is much lower compared to (that) which Australia asked of other advanced economies”. A question from China asking about the conditions Australia is waiting for the rest of the world to meet before agreeing to implement its more ambitious targets was left unanswered.

It is worth recalling that the government’s own Climate Change Authority has advised that the conditions have now been meet for at least the 15% target.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Brazil led detailed questioning as to whether the Government’s main policy instrument, the A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, would be adequate to deliver the required emission reductions.

Is Australia being left in the cold?

What observations about the state of Australia’s climate diplomacy can be drawn from this session?

First, Australia’s emissions-reduction targets, both for 2020 and beyond, have been put squarely in the international spotlight by its major trading partners. Australia is viewed as an important player in these negotiations, and is now being watched and tested by the most powerful nations.

Australia’s major trading partners are either unclear or uneasy about the lack of ambition in the 2020 target, and the lack of clarity as to when the more ambitious conditional targets would be triggered. The news that Australia’s standing international targets are now under review will exacerbate these concerns.

These trading partners are keen to know whether Australia is doing its fair share of the required global effort, and whether the Emissions Reduction Fund can deliver this.

Much of the Paris negotiations will focus on post-2020 targets, but the US and other countries have built their post-2020 commitments on the pathways established in their pre-2020 targets and view this as a test of legitimacy and fair share of global action.

Major trading partners now have Australia squarely in the spotlight and are questioning its positioning in these international negotiations. High-profile figures such as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan have begun to view Australia as a laggard on climate policy.

For those deeply worried about the vulnerability of Australia and Australians to climate extremes, and the importance of seizing opportunities to develop low-carbon economies and jobs, being a leader would be much more attractive.

Perhaps it’s time for a wider discussion about whether heading into the Paris talks as a laggard or a leader is the wiser strategy, particularly as the scrutiny on Australia’s stance will only increase over the coming months.