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Australia’s leader sets his sights low in opening conference gambit

Malcolm Turnbull addresses the opening of the Paris climate summit. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

When newly minted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rose to speak at COP13 in Bali in 2007 and announced that Australia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, he received a standing ovation from the world community. After years of pariah status under John Howard’s government, Rudd was the beaming recipient of a wave of international love.

Today, Australia’s current leader Malcolm Turnbull arrived at COP21 in Paris in a similar situation, with Australia welcomed back into the fold after a two-year retreat to the dark ages. Yet when he rose to address the global multitude he had nothing to announce. Unlike Rudd, he did not become prime minister by promising to overturn a troglodytic climate policy; he became prime minister by promising to keep one.

Yet surrounded by global leaders in the mood for action, the external pressure on Turnbull to show his good faith is immense. And if he’s still the man who once said he would not lead a Liberal Party that was not committed to tackling climate change, then the internal pressure to be that man again will reach a peak this week.

So what could he tell the world? After the usual hype about the innovative and creative species, and with “faith in humanity’s genius for invention”, he repeated the claims that Australia would halve its per-capita emissions by 2030 and “meet and beat” its 2020 target (a 5% emissions reduction relative to 2000 levels), which in the scheme of things is hardly impressive.

What matters for the climate is how many tonnes we actually stop putting into the atmosphere, and these numbers are aimed at obscuring that truth.

Turnbull’s specific promises did not amount to much. He committed Australia to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period – no surprise there.

He promised that Australia would join a commitment by rich countries to double clean energy investment around the world, without saying how much it would actually contribute.

And he committed Australia to spend A$1 billion over the next five years to help Pacific nations to defend against the effects of climate change. But it’s the old trick: the funds will come out of the existing aid budget, so will be taken away from other development projects. At this rate, Australia’s entire aid budget will soon be devoted to climate adaptation projects.

In short, Turnbull said nothing that might upset the deniers and sceptics on his backbench, they who held his arm while he signed the piece of paper saying he would not change Tony Abbott’s climate policy.

Those who want to see Australia take a firm stance on climate are waiting for Turnbull to prove himself. Most are willing to give him time to accumulate the political capital to overrule the sceptics.

But the signs are less than encouraging. When he dismissed as “heroic” Labor’s new target of a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 – the minimum calculated by the Climate Change Authority if Australia is serious about limiting warming to 2°C – it perhaps indicated that he plans to be nobody’s climate change hero.

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