Australia’s contribution matters: why we can’t ignore our climate responsibilities

China says Australia has a crucial role in reducing global emissions. AAP

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professor Ross Garnaut explains why Australia’s action on climate change policy is important.

There is a line of argument about international action that is used by those who oppose Australian action on mitigation. This is the argument that Australia is an inconsequential country.

What Australia does and does not do, according to this argument, has no effect on the actions of others. Therefore Australia should do nothing and save its money, whether or not the rest of the world is taking action.

That way Australia will benefit from what others do if they are taking action, and save money if they are not.

The view that one country’s actions have no effect on other countries is present in all but the largest countries, but outside Australia is recognised more clearly for what it is: an excuse for not acting on climate change. The argument dissolves once it is recognised that there is no need to make a once-for-all decision on Australia’s share of an ambitious global mitigation effort.

What is important is that we make it clear that we are moving with other countries, and are prepared to contribute our fair share to ambitious action if others are playing their parts.

We can all build towards strong mitigation, each of us observing the actions of others and moving further in response to what we see.

What we are dealing with is a problem in which the solution requires collective action. It is not an unusual kind of problem in domestic or international affairs.

Indeed, the difference between civilisation and anarchy is above all the capacity of society to find a basis for efficient collective action when it is necessary to solve a problem of great consequence.

Australians who don’t want any action on climate change make the point that we account for only a very small proportion—just under 1.5% of total global emissions—so that what we do has little direct effect on the global total.

This is a true but trivial point. And, while the United Kingdom’s share of global emissions is not much larger than ours—about 1.7%, despite it having three times our population—it hasn’t occurred to a British prime minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards that Britain’s efforts are unimportant. And nor are they. The influence of British ideas has been considerable.

But the view that Australia doesn’t matter is common enough in Australia for us to have to answer the question: is ours truly a country that doesn’t count?

We could seek an answer by listening to what others say.

In Melbourne in March, the Chinese minister with responsibility for climate change policy and also energy policy, Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua, told me that China’s emissions reduction commitments would not be affected by inaction in Australia.

But, he added, it was crucially important not only that Australia meet its unconditional target of reducing emissions by 5% by 2020, but make the target more ambitious in line with the efforts of other developed countries. This would, he said, encourage others whose commitments were explicitly or implicitly conditional.

Xie was not saying that Australia doesn’t matter.

The United States ambassador to Australia and officials in Washington reporting directly to the president have asked me not to underestimate how strongly the outcome of the current Australian policy process will feed back into the US discussion on climate change.

Australia is seen as sharing some of the same characteristics of the United States, including high per capita energy use and emissions and an exceptionally large role for emissions-intensive industries in the political process.

Our decision to follow the Bush administration into failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, after being a party to the agreement negotiations, made us the developed country whose example was cited most often in the US domestic political debate.

Acceptance of carbon pricing in Australia, said the ambassador and others, would help the chances of strong mitigation action in the United States.

Count this against the doctrine of Australia as an inconsequential country.

The recognition of Australian influence is clearer and stronger in other countries in our western Pacific neighbourhood.

In the course of my work over the past four years, I have discussed climate change policy with leading members of the Indonesian cabinet on half a dozen occasions. Indonesia is certainly not an inconsequential country: it is the fourth most populous country in the world; the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases; the largest country with a Moslem majority; the international policy leader of Southeast Asia; and the third biggest economic growth success story of the Platinum Age.

Indonesian leaders are closely interested in what Australia might or might not do. They would be amazed to hear that some Australians think that Australia doesn’t matter.

Then we can look at the historical record.

Direct experience has left me with no doubt that Australia has the standing, the analytic capacity and the diplomatic skills to significantly influence international policy on issues.

When there is compatibility between the interests of Australia and the countries we are seeking to influence, and on which we ourselves are acting consistently with the shared international interest, that influence can be decisive.

Climate change is such an issue.

There is wide recognition, in the United States and Southeast and Northeast Asia at least, that Australians are good at working out effective ways of organising international cooperation on particular issues, and at marshalling support for international cooperation around those ideas.

On the climate change issue, I would count the embodiment of “pledge and review’” in the Cancun Agreements—countries pledging their own commitments to emissions reduction and having them reviewed by other countries—as a consequence of Australian influence.

“Pledge and review” was introduced into the Copenhagen conference when it was in crisis by the Australian team, and became centrally important to President Obama’s discussions with leaders of China and the other major developing countries.

And what if we applied the logic of Australia as an inconsequential country to strategic issues? Are our troops in Afghanistan, and were our soldiers on the Western Front in World War I, more influential than we could expect our contributions to shared efforts on climate change to be?

Was Australia’s commitment of the lives of so many of its young people in war and so much expenditure on defence over a hundred years really irrelevant to the shape of the world in which we make our lives?

Would everything be exactly the same if we had decided at the beginning that our presence in Afghanistan would not affect the outcome, so that we might as well use the people and money comfortably at home?

Clearly the argument that Australia has no influence on what others do is a path into quicksand.

If the rest of the world were taking strong action to avoid dangerous climate change, and if it were true that Australian decisions were entirely inconsequential to global outcomes, would we really be comfortable to take a free ride on the efforts of others?

That is not where we usually want to place our country in international affairs.

And would others be comfortable about our free riding on them, so that there was no retaliation for what others saw as inadequate contributions on climate change, and no effect on cooperation on other matters of importance to Australia?

No-one would expect the answer to be “Yes, Australian free riding would be fine”.

Since it is not possible for Australia to be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because others are already too far ahead, we should do our fair share in what the world needs to do. Let us look forward to a future in which Australia is doing its fair share in a global effort.

This article is excerpted from the Garnaut Review 2011 Final Report.

This is the eighth part of our series Clearing up the Climate Debate. To read the other instalments, follow the links below: