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Twenty-five years of Australian climate pledges, trumped…

Sunday marked exactly a quarter-century since Australia’s then federal environment minister Ros Kelly signed the world’s first climate treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero.

Eighteen months earlier, Kelly had had to cajole her cabinet colleagues into agreeing an ambitious emissions reduction target. Prime Minister Paul Keating himself wasn’t bothered to attend the Rio Earth Summit (most world leaders did), and in the words of one journalist, was “preoccupied with winning the upcoming election [and] said he wasn’t going all the way to Rio to give a six-minute speech.”

Thanks to a judicious mix of lobbying and “the sky will fall” economic modelling, the coal industry and its allies had persuaded the government to reduce its ambitions. Proposals from within the Ecologically Sustainable Development process and the Industry Commission for some kind of carbon price (either a trading scheme or a straight-up tax) were lobbied out of existence, and at the end of 1992, federal and state governments agreed a purely voluntary National Greenhouse Response Strategy. Later the same month, Australia had ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, one of the first nations to do so.

Trouble was afoot though. Developed nations, including Australia, had agreed under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” that they should take the lead in emissions reduction. But the Keating government was not keen, with Treasurer Ralph Willis flagging possible withdrawal from the treaty.

At the first Conference of the Parties, held in March and April 1995 and chaired by a young Angela Merkel, Australia lobbied unsuccessfully against this idea of rich countries taking the lead.

The federal government then used economic modelling by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics to argue that Australia deserved special treatment. (The modelling, it emerged, was funded largely by fossil fuel interests). Prime Minister John Howard, who was on the record as saying that Australia should never have signed in Rio, tried to get support for what was called “differentiation”, with limited success.

At the 1997 Kyoto meeting, brinkmanship by Australia secured a sweet deal: its agreed emissions “reduction” target was an 8% increase on 1990 levels by 2012, as well as a loophole to allow it to count reductions in land-clearing towards the target.

In September 1998 it emerged that the Howard cabinet had agreed not to ratify Kyoto until the US did. In March 2001, President George W. Bush pulled the US out, citing the “national interest”. On World Environment Day 2002, John Howard – to precisely nobody’s surprise – did the same, with the same reasoning.

After Kyoto came into effect (the Russians signed on, in exchange for World Trade Organisation membership) Bush and Howard set up what was regarded as a spoiler organisation, the short-lived and much derided Asia Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate.

The mood music changed in 2007 with the election of Kevin Rudd, who ratified Kyoto as his first act, but declined to set stronger short-term emissions targets at his first UNFCCC meeting, in Bali.

The lack of ambition in Rudd’s signature climate policy enraged environmentalists, with only a slight increase in emissions reductions if there were a global deal. The Copenhagen debacle, in late 2009, seems to have shaken Rudd to his core (according to accounts by Paul Kelly, Philip Chubb and others), and Rudd fatefully tried to kick climate policy into the long grass.

Next came Julia Gillard, who forged ahead with climate policy not for international reasons but because her minority government’s backers insisted upon it.

Then, under Tony Abbott, Australia’s role in UN climate talks plumbed new depths. No minister attended the 2013 summit in Warsaw, with Greg Hunt too busy abolishing Gillard’s carbon price.

Ahead of the crucial 2015 Paris talks, Australia produced a low target of 26-28% reduction for the 2015 Paris meeting, which was attended by Malcolm Turnbull.

Australia has signed up to the Paris Agreement, just as Trump was elected. In theory this means it is committed to keeping global average temperature rise “well below 1.5°C”. In practice, not so much…

Will we always have Paris?

Trump has now sensationally announced plans to withdraw the US from Paris, citing a desire to renegotiate a deal he claims is bad for the US and arguing that he was elected to govern “Pittsburgh, not Paris”.

This is despite the fact that none of the Paris deal’s emissions targets or climate financing commitments are legally binding, and even if the accord could be renegotiated (which it can’t) it is difficult to imagine how the world’s worst cumulative greenhouse polluter could be handed a more favourable outcome.

The Washington Post argued that Trump has already put the brakes on climate action, while Elizabeth Bomberg, writing in the journal Environmental Politics, argues that:

Constitutional checks, societal, local and subnational mobilization, combined with the economic trajectory of low carbon energy, could well offset the President’s moves to dismantle environmental protection and climate policy and action. In the end, Trump’s impact will depend less on what he does, and more on what others do.

Trump was advised by Michaelia Cash not to quit the Paris Agreement, and Australia’s environment minister Josh Frydenberg has said that Australia will stay in.

Opinions vary on the Paris climate deal. On this site Luke Kemp has argued the world would be better off without a recalcitrant US still sitting in the negotiations.

My opinion is that Paris is little more than words anyway – a “pledge and review” retread of the Kyoto Protocol, featuring years of stocktakes while the carbon dioxide relentlessly accumulates in our skies. Where did it all go wrong?

Environmental organisations thought that getting governments to make promises was enough. But it turns out that unless we have monitory democracy, in the words of John Keane, then vested interests can run rings around morality and common sense.

Then again, it’s not clear how we could have built the infrastructure of monitoring, on such a long-term and wicked problem, with marches losing their efficacy and activists burning out as they look into the abyss (and the abyss looks back into them)? With the Great Barrier Reef dying, and the scientists saying even the 2°C target may now be beyond reach, it will soon be hard to mobilise people because they will believe that there is “nothing left to do but scream”.

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