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Australia’s climate diplomacy is like a doughnut: empty in the middle

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) on the summit’s opening day. Reuters/Christian Hartmann

There is a profound disconnect between Australia’s international climate diplomacy and its national climate and energy policies.

The diplomacy could be cast in positive terms, on the surface at least.

During the first week of the climate negotiations in Paris, Australia displayed a preparedness to be flexible and serve as a broker of compromises in the negotiations over the draft Paris Agreement.

Australia has also agreed to support the inclusion of a temperature goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C, which is a matter very dear to the hearts of Pacific Island nations for whom climate change is a fundamental existential threat.

Australia will serve as co-chair (with South Africa) of the Green Climate Fund in 2016, which will be channelling money to the most vulnerable countries in the Pacific and elsewhere to enhance their preparedness for the harmful impacts arising from a much warmer world.

In his address on the opening day of the conference, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia would ratify the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto II) and commit A$200 million a year in climate finance going forward to 2020.

And on the sidelines of the negotiations, environment minister Greg Hunt announced that Australia would provide A$1.2 million towards the Coral Triangle Initiative for Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Security.

He also unveiled the Blue Carbon research project to explore how the protection of marine and coastal habitats could reduce emissions by storing carbon while also protecting biodiversity and fisheries.

Yet appearances can be deceiving. The A$200 million in annual climate finance comes from the aid budget and is not new or additional. Nor does it represent an enhanced commitment relative to previous contributions.

And it is widely acknowledged that an enhanced commitment to climate finance by rich countries to assist poor countries to develop clean energy and adapt to climate change will be central to garnering the support of developing countries to a Paris agreement.

Australia had every reason to ratify Kyoto II, since it had one of the lowest emissions targets in the developed world for 2020 (5% below 2000 levels).

Australia has also been able to benefit from greenhouse gas accounting rules (including a carry over of surplus emissions allowances from the first commitment period) that will enable achievement of this target at the same time as greenhouse emissions outside the land sector are set to increase by around 11% by 2020.

Contrast this with Germany, the UK and Denmark, which announced that they will cancel their surplus emission allowances and not carry them over for Kyoto II.

Australia’s climate diplomacy is therefore like a doughnut: a few some promising initiatives around the edges but nothing in the middle.

The missing middle, of course, is robust domestic targets and policies for 2020 and the post-2020 period.

Get serious

If Australia was really serious about aiming for a more ambitious temperature target to stand firm with its neighbours in the Pacific, then it would have domestic politics that were commensurate with this ambition.

As the strong contingent of civil society organisations from Australia at COP21 have been quick to point out, Australia’s domestic policy settings, including significant fossil fuel subsidies, actively encourage fossil fuel production and use.

These subsidies, along with the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, cast the burden on the public to pay for the cost of carbon pollution, rather than the polluters.

The first week of the negotiations included a string of announcements of new initiatives on divestment from fossil fuels and efforts to promote the phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. This included a communiqué on fossil fuel subsidy reform, signed by eight non-G20 countries (including New Zealand and Norway) and supported by France and the United States.

Australia declined to give its support to the communiqué. Turnbull said Australia would have supported it if it had been restricted to “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies.

Yet economists describe fossil fuel subsides as perverse because they harm the economy (by propping up inefficient industries) and the environment, and soak up scarce public money that could be better spent elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the government’s decision to approve the giant Carmichael coal mine in Queensland will completely cancel out any of the modest goodwill provided by Australia’s diplomacy.

Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index for 2015 ranked Australia 60th out of the 61 countries surveyed – second last to Saudi Arabia. This is down from 57th last year.

No amount of flexible and constructive climate diplomacy, or negotiating support for Pacific Island nations, can hide the fact that Australia’s domestic policies are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Robyn Eckersley is attending COP21 in Paris as an accredited observer. This post originally appeared on the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute’s COP21 blog.

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