Backing away from climate funding will further damage Australia’s credentials

Australia is preparing to step back from climate action in front of a pretty huge audience. EPA/RADEK PIETRUSZKA

Australia’s refusal to support developing countries’ efforts under a new climate change agreement or the new UN Green Climate Fund will further undermine its claims to being a good international citizen.

According to media reports, Cabinet has authorised negotiators at the current UN climate talks in Warsaw to affirm our target to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 5% between 2000 and 2020.

The government’s own Climate Change Authority and other expert analysis agree that the current target is inadequate. Failing to lift our domestic effort despite the moderate costs of doing so will damage Australia’s claim to be pulling its weight internationally.

But Cabinet’s reported decision that Australia “will not sign up to any new agreement that involves spending money or levying taxes” will further tarnish our citizenship credentials. It will also damage our national interests more directly.

Australia is a country with high emissions per person and one which is also vulnerable to rising temperatures. We have an obligation to support poorer and far more vulnerable countries, not least our Pacific island neighbours.

At the same time, Australia rightly wants to see a new global agreement that involves all major emitters, including developing countries in our region such as China, India and Indonesia. Committing substantial funding will be critical for getting those countries on board.

In addition, many of the low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions worldwide are located in poorer countries. Climate finance, like international emissions trading, enables wealthy countries to harness those opportunities far more cost-effectively than “direct action” at home.

This was an insight recognised by ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt. During the Howard era they boosted Australia’s efforts to help reduce emissions from deforestation in tropical countries.

Encouragingly, Hunt remains enthusiastic about tackling global deforestation. But unless his plans for a major summit on this issue are backed up with funding to support practical action in our region, they will fail to take root.

Countries will not sign a new global climate agreement till 2015 at the earliest. But reaching a widely acceptable deal will require trust between wealthy and poor countries. That trust takes time to build up but is quickly lost. For this reason, a key priority at Warsaw will be for wealthy countries to dispel growing concerns that they are backsliding on funding commitments that they have already made.

In 2009, Australia joined a collective pledge by wealthy countries to mobilise $100 billion a year in climate funding by 2020. Since coming into power, the Coalition has not formally rescinded that pledge. But it has not announced any plans for how much it will contribute following a three-year “fast-start” pledge of $599 million that ended earlier this year.

We have previously estimated that Australia’s share of the commitment will require a roughly tenfold increase on its annual fast-start finance to around $2 billion a year by 2020. Much of that increase will need to come not from public coffers but from leveraging private investment for clean technologies.

While the Labor government relied on the aid budget to meet its fast-start commitments, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — in a rare point of common ground with the Greens — has stated that “climate change funding should not be disguised as foreign aid funding”.

But if Australia wants to avoid relying on the aid budget without reneging on its 2020 pledge altogether, it needs to be part of an internationally coordinated effort to harness new sources of funding. For this reason, Australia is painting itself into a corner by backing away from the Green Climate Fund, which aims to attract private as well as public investments.

The notion that pledges to multilateral funds simply siphon away taxpayers’ hard-earned cash to distant bureaucrats intent on creating a world government is a preposterous but regrettably common refrain. Independent analysis has found that multilateral funds are generally more cost-effective and transparent than bilateral aid programs.

Australia’s previous role in co-chairing the Green Climate Fund has helped to ensure that it will provide value for money. Now that the Coalition has taken an axe to the aid program’s ability to administer funds, it does not have the luxury of ruling out the best available alternatives for channelling climate finance.

Climate finance is not, as insinuated by the internal summary of Cabinet’s discussion, “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. Statements such as these are just sloganeering masquerading as policy-making.

What they disguise is that a commitment to shoulder our fair share of climate finance makes sound policy sense for Australia, as well as helping countries far less fortunate than our own.

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