Australia’s stance at December’s Madrid climate conference was damaging and widely condemned. It needs to reconsider its approach before the Glasgow conference this year.
On 17 December 2019 the United Nations climate change conference in Madrid reached a disappointing conclusion. The 25th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP25, was the last major climate conference before the Paris Agreement came into force on 1 January 2020. It was billed as a chance to lock in the “Paris rulebook,” the set of rules that will regulate governments’ commitments under the Paris Agreement. However, the conference failed to agree on rules to govern international carbon markets (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) and made little progress on other Paris Agreement articles.
The fact that another Conference of Parties (COP) has ended in disappointment is not entirely surprising. The multilateral climate governance system has been regularly criticised for moving too slowly and reaching agreements that are insufficient to prevent catastrophic climate change. However, it is rare to see diplomats saying reaching no agreement is better than agreeing to anything on the table. But that is exactly what happened. The UK’s former Environment Minister Claire O’Neil, who will preside over the next year’s COP in Glasgow, tweeted that “no deal is definitely better than the bad deal proposed” in Madrid. That is a damning indictment.
Australia played a huge role in the failure of the Madrid summit. Australia sought to weaken carbon market regulations to ensure it could use “carryover credits” from overachieving on its greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets under the Kyoto Protocol to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, effectively lowering its emissions reductions target. The proposal was widely opposed. Costa Rica lambasted Australia for blocking stronger proposals. Laurence Tubiana, the former French Environment Minister and one of the key architects of the Paris Agreement described Australia’s demand as “cheating,” saying “Australia was willing … to destroy the whole [Paris Agreement] system”.
On 14 December, 31 developed and developing countries led by Costa Rica and including Colombia, the Marshall Islands, Germany, France, the UK, and New Zealand released the “San Jose Principles,” a list of 11 basic rules for international carbon markets, including “prohibit[ing] the use of pre-2020 units, Kyoto units and allowances, and any underlying reductions toward Paris Agreement and other international goals.” The announcement had the potential to shift the balance of COP25 towards an ambitious outcome, but Australia dug its heels in and resisted. The Guardian reported Australian diplomats were given “a non-negotiable instruction” from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to not compromise on carryover credits.
Kyoto carryover credits are controversial for a number of reasons. Australia has these credits because of a generous emissions reductions allocation under the Kyoto Protocol. At Kyoto in 1997 Australia promised to limit its emission gas increases to +8% compared to 1990 levels by 2012. This was hardly an ambitious target: the EU took on a -15% cut and New Zealand a stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels over the same period. Australia was also able to claim it had achieved unusually high emissions reductions during the Kyoto commitment period because of the “Australia Clause” (Clause 3.7) which includes emissions from land clearing in the 1990 emissions baseline. Australia had a very high rate of land clearing in 1990 but it has declined significantly since, meaning it could claim emissions reductions without any significant effort.
The biggest issue with carryover credits is that they are counter to the intention and purpose of the Paris agreement. They are effectively an accounting trick, but the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be fiddled around with like a company’s profit reports. Australia’s position effectively pushes the start-line for emissions reductions back and makes it permissible to emit millions more tons of greenhouse gases. The Paris Agreement is designed to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. Carryover credits will not help keep temperatures down.
The fact is that Australia’s actions in international climate diplomacy matter. Australia cannot unplug itself from the international climate governance debates. Its actions send messages, build momentum, and contribute to the environment around international climate politics, like every other country’s actions do. Australia should consider how its actions might encourage others to act, and the cumulative impact its decisions could have.
Dean Bialek, a former Australian diplomat who worked on drafting the Paris Agreement, linked India’s recent proposal to use old Kyoto-era Clean Development Mechanism emissions reductions to meet its Paris Agreement commitments to Australia’s use of Kyoto carryover credits. While Australia might have low emissions in net terms, India does not. If India uses Kyoto-era achievements to justify less action in the present, that will be much more damaging for international climate efforts than if Australia does. Australia’s actions would set a damning precedent.
The positions Australia advocate also influence the range of likely outcomes at international climate conferences. It is important to remember that international climate agreements, like Kyoto and Paris, take years and years of work from diplomats, policymakers, and civil society. You need to build both the will to act and agreement around what action should be taken. When developed countries like Australia use accounting tricks to lower their ambitions it feeds the perception that developed states are trying to shirk their responsibility to deal with climate change. This hinders negotiations with developing states who feel cheated. Given the reality that major developing countries like China, India, and Indonesia will need to make significant emissions reductions to prevent catastrophic climate change, any actions that make their cooperation less likely is damaging.
Reaching international climate agreements also requires momentum to build up at the right time such that countries are willing to come on board and make changes for the international good. At Paris in 2015, the revelation that 30 plus countries known as the High Ambition Coalition had been coordinating to push a common set of principles for an international climate agreement radically changed the dynamics in Paris and helped deliver a successful outcome. The San Jose Principles had widespread support and could have been a similar rallying point for an international carbon market regime. Instead, because of the obstinance of countries like Australia, they did not receive the support they deserved to, and another opportunity to advance the international fight against climate change has passed.
Australia has taken a myopic approach to climate change negotiations in recent years. Dismissing principles that have widespread international support for the sake of domestic political gains is incredibly damaging for the fight against catastrophic climate change. Australia needs to bring a more constructive attitude to the table in Glasgow this November for the sake of the international community’s effort.
Alex McManis is a Councillor at the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW Branch. He recently completed his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney where his thesis focused on the 2015 Paris climate negotiations.
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