New UN rules put the spotlight on climate laggards to lift their game

Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop at the last year’s Lima climate talks, where nations agreed new transparency rules over climate targets. DFAT, CC BY

In the lead-up to the major United Nations climate summit in Paris later this year, Australia has announced plans to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

According to a variety of experts, the target range puts Australia towards the back of the pack based on our wealth and emissions per person. By 2030 we’ll still have the highest emissions per person among comparable economies. Australia’s announcement has already attracted international criticism.

Analysts have long argued that making upfront, transparent pledges can limit the temptation for countries to free ride on the back of other nations’ efforts.

Most countries announced their climate pledges for 2020 in the months after the 2009 Copenhagen summit. This time around, the UN has called on countries to announce their post-2020 pledges (called “intended nationally determined contributions”, or INDCs) before the Paris summit.

Calling on countries to put their cards on the table seems like a good way of encouraging fair play in Paris. But will the promise of greater transparency have the desired outcome, particularly if the UN lacks the legal clout to coerce laggard countries to lift their game?

Transparency and talks

Back in 2009, countries had considerable leeway in how they framed their 2020 pledges. This was a departure from the more uniform rules that wealthy countries adopted for the previous round of 2008-2012 targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The freer brief was the price the world paid for bringing a much larger and more diverse group of developing economies, such as China and India, into the tent.

When Australia submitted its 2020 pledge to the UN’s overarching climate body (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC), it consisted of a one-line undertaking with a six-line footnote.

Australia pledged to cut emissions by 5% relative to 2000 levels, rising to 15% or 25% if the world agreed to a more ambitious global deal. The statement didn’t give any details of why this should be considered a fair pledge, nor was Australia formally required to.

To their credit, Australia’s climate diplomats were among those who have since called for a more transparent, structured approach.

Fast-forward to the UN talks in Lima last year, where countries agreed on guidelines for their post-2020 contributions.

For the first time, each country is encouraged to explain how its contribution is “fair and ambitious”.

Important gaps remain on what countries need to disclose, including on emissions from land use – an area where existing rules have worked to Australia’s benefit - and on the use of emissions trading. Countries can still choose a base year that makes their target look more impressive. But overall, nations need to set out considerably more detail than for their Copenhagen pledges.

In another innovation introduced in 2014, nations have to publish answers to questions from other countries on their 2020 targets. Earlier this year, Australia faced a grilling from the United States, China and others on its target and the Direct Action policy that has been put in place to deliver it.

Holding fairness claims up to the light

Australia has duly submitted to the UNFCCC a three-page outline detailing its intentions, arguing that its target is not just “fair” and “ambitious”, but “serious” and “responsible” to boot.

In the light of the expert analysis mentioned at this article’s outset, we may well dispute this choice of adjectives. In which case, doesn’t such a process just give countries a licence to issue unfair targets under cover of the rhetoric of fairness?

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the process. Even if countries are inclined to see fairness in terms of what suits their national interests, the spotlight is on them to explain why their targets are fair. Of the 26 or so INDCs submitted so far, most have given some explanation.

Once these explanations see the light of day, it is easier to subject them to public scrutiny, debate and analysis. As I argued in a recent working paper, even if countries can’t agree on a single formula for what’s fair, it may be possible to agree on what kinds of arguments don’t hold water.

Why, for example, should Australia’s target be weaker given its “current energy infrastructure” (read: ageing coal-fired plants such as Hazelwood)? After all, we’ve had plenty of time – not to mention sunshine – to shift to renewable energy sources and could still do so now at a low cost to the nation’s wealthy economy.

Can transparency make a difference?

Even with these transparency measures in place, the government has supplied scant detail on what steps it will take at home to meet its current targets.

But without international scrutiny, would Australia have aimed even lower? Given changes in the global economy since Copenhagen, it’s hard to say. Still, most countries, including Australia, have picked up the pace of their emissions reductions for the post-2020 period, even if they still fall well short of what’s needed to avoid dangerous temperature rise.

The UN could still do much more to boost transparency, not least by a robust assessment of countries’ targets against widely cited criteria of fairness such as wealth and emissions per person, and by closing down reporting loopholes.

But crucially, upfront pledging and greater clarity may step up international pressure on countries that are seen to be dragging the chain. Not only is the inadequacy of Australia’s target now in the global spotlight, but it’s also abundantly clear to other countries that the existing domestic policies underpinning that target aren’t up to the task.

Assuming that the government sticks with its current level of effort between now and the Paris meeting, Australia’s target will remain a fig leaf that gives it just enough modesty to stay at the negotiating table.

But that much exposure comes at a growing reputational cost. Australia’s fig leaf is increasingly likely to wilt once rolling UN reviews of contributions kick in.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Tony Abbott may not care that much about how the world views Australia on climate change. But some of his cabinet colleagues, including potential leadership contenders, clearly do. So does a majority of the Australian public.

Transparency isn’t a failsafe recipe for unblocking progress on climate change. But it can strengthen the hand of those whose views are backed by scientific evidence and by reasons that can withstand the harsh light of day.