UN climate chief: other countries are ‘further ahead than Australia’

UN chief climate negotiator Christiana Figueres told a Melbourne conference Australia risks becoming an outsider at this year’s crucial Paris talks. EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN/AAP

Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with today’s speech by United Nations climate change chief Christiana Figueres to a Melbourne summit on greenhouse emissions reductions. Because what was most interesting was not what she did say, but what she didn’t.

Figueres praised what Europe has done on climate targets, as well as commending pledges from the United States and Mexico on emissions. China had made an “amazing commitment”. Gabon (Google it) got the tick. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia was praised.

But one country was not praised in her 40-minute speech: Australia.

Pivotal moment

As the world heads towards the pivotal United Nations climate summit in Paris in December, this was a gentle but pointed signal from Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Her message was that Australia will be expected to put an ambitious offer on the table to tackle climate change. And if that does not happen, the world will take notice, and some powerful international players will put pressure on the government.

What Australia will offer at the Paris summit is unclear; the all-important post-2020 emissions target is still being considered and will be announced in July. If, as some speculate, the target is weak, then Australia will be treated as an outsider by some at Paris. That critical camp could include not just outspoken Pacific islands, but also the UN, the United States, the European Union, the French (who are hosting the summit), and perhaps China. The ramifications of that, for a trade-dependent nation used to looking to key allies for foreign policy direction, merit pause for thought.

Figueres, in an assured, optimistic speech, appeared underwhelmed by Australia’s action thus far on climate change, noting that some other countries are “much further ahead than Australia”, and that Australia has the highest per capita emissions of any industrialised nation.

“I know that this is not easy,” she said. “Australia is a country that prides itself on leadership on many, many different – not just in cricket – many different fields. This cannot be the exception.”

When asked which other countries might follow Australia’s policy lead in establishing an emissions reduction fund to pay companies to cut emissions (the centrepiece of the government’s Direct Action plan), Figueres, who had spoken positively of carbon pricing, bit her finger thoughtfully and said “that’s a tough question”. She directed further questions along those lines to federal environment minister Greg Hunt, who answered them from the audience.

Targeted diplomacy

Figueres was not the only delegate at the two-day conference to hint at the ramifications of Australia’s current course. US embassy spokeswoman Roxie Houge said that if Australia chose a “weak target,” it would send a concerning signal, especially to developing nations. EU ambassador Sem Fabrizi said he would “wait and see” on Australia’s target, and then “make our reaction known”. French ambassador Christophe Lecourtier said there had been an “interesting” mood between Australian and French ministers lately, saying that he was confident momentum was building for an effective climate coalition – “even here”, he added, which was not at all Freudian in its directness.

All this adds complexity to the Australian government’s plans for the Paris summit. What target to offer? The United States, Russia, the EU and reportedly Japan all have targets to cut emissions by between 25% and 50% in the medium term (by 2025 or 2030). Have a look at them here. In contrast, Australia’s short-term target is to cut emissions by 5% by 2020.

That may have been acceptable in the wake of the failed 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; it surely won’t be in Paris. Yet when Abbott government ministers emphasise Australia’s “national circumstances”, it suggests they are considering another modest target post-2020.

Times have changed. There are now more countries offering stronger targets, and fewer countries offering weak ones. For the first time, developing countries are expected to have targets; China has already promised to reverse emissions growth by 2030, and will lodge a formal INDC later this year. The balance has shifted, and Australia runs the risk of becoming an outsider.

To avoid that, the Abbott government could offer a target in line with, say, the United States (and watch for a switch of Australia’s baseline year from 2000 to 2005 to make it easier). But the main problem is how would the government reach it? Directly funding such emissions cuts would drain the budget, while the prospect of turning the Emissions Reduction Fund into a baseline-and-credit emissions trading scheme with a declining emissions cap left many of the 400 business executives at the Melbourne conference quaking into their iPads.

The Paris summit may not reach a deal, but the odds are that we won’t see a disaster of Copenhagen proportions. In 2009, the UN had a vision of a top-down system where an emissions pie was carved up between nations who would join together in a planet-wide emissions trading scheme. What actually happened was a global temper tantrum (which dealt a mortal blow to Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership).

For Paris, the plan is bottom-up. Countries propose what they will do, will pick their own way to do it, and peer pressure will supposedly keep them on track. Insiders know Paris won’t strike a deal to keep warming below 2C; they’re just hoping for a good start. Purists don’t like this kind of incrementalism, but then purists probably thought Copenhagen would work.

Weaning off coal and oil

Figueres also stressed the importance of economic diversification. Coal is Australia’s second-largest export, but most of its major customers – Japan, South Korea and China – have agreed to start to wean themselves off it. Australia can’t stop that.

“Everybody knows the direction of travel,” Figueres said. She pointed to a surprising model for Australia: oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

“The amount of thinking that is already going on in Saudi Arabia, I was very impressed, because they understand … that they will not be able to use all of that oil,” she said. “They are already beginning to think ‘how does a country like Saudi Arabia begin to diversify its economy?’ Now if Saudi Arabia can do that, friends, everybody else can.”