How Australia earned its reputation on climate change


Australia is often referred to as the “laggard” on climate change, or worse.

When international climate negotiations arise, we are sometimes accused of being a “blocker”.

“Australia has an absolutely terrible international reputation for climate action and it has been exposed report after report after report,” said Lesley Hughes, a climate scientist at Macquarie University and an adviser to the Climate Council.

But over time Australia’s international reputation on climate change has been mixed, with ups and downs along the way.

One thing is certain: Australia is heading to Glasgow with a lot of luggage.

Australia’s first goal was actually to increase its emissions

At COP3 in 1997, the world gathered in Kyoto to sign the world’s first climate agreement: the Kyoto Protocol.

Its objective was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And most of the developed world came away with promises to do just that. The UK has pledged to cut emissions by 12.5%. Japan has pledged a 6.5% cut. Canada 6 percent.

But Australia has sadly pledged to increase its emissions by 8%.

European Union environmental policy spokesman Peter Jorgensen said Australia’s lobbying on climate change at the time was “wrong and immoral … a disgrace”.

Howard Bamsey was then Australian Ambassador to the United Nations. He says other countries didn’t think it was fair, but maintains the target was reasonable.

“One of the senior British officials told me afterwards that there had been a small argument within the European group as to whether to tell us that it was not enough,” he said.

A leading emissions trading system … and its destruction

When Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007, Australia’s reputation changed.

At COP13 in Bali that year, Australia reportedly received a standing ovation when it was announced that Rudd would ratify the Kyoto accord – something previous coalition governments had refused to do.

Then, in 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard implemented a leading Emissions Trading System (ETS), an economy-wide market mechanism that aimed to reduce emissions.

Richie Merzian, who was one of Australia’s top climate negotiators between 2011 and 2018, said the carbon price “was a really strong example of Australia taking climate change seriously.”

The price of carbon has been short-lived. When the Coalition returned to power under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the ETS was one of the first climate policies it overturned.

“Australia has reverted to its baseline by default,” Merzian said.

Mr. Bamsey is more ambivalent about the impact of these pivots.

“It is understood that for Australia, the politics of climate change have been almost particularly difficult,” he says.

“People shrug their shoulders when there is another turn for the worse on Australia’s side.”

The piece of coal

Few can forget the photo of Prime Minister Scott Morrison holding up a lump of coal in Parliament.

“It’s coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt you.”

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Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal to Question Time in 2017.

But science tells us the opposite. Burning coal is responsible for about half of all greenhouse gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere – the greenhouse gases that now contribute to extreme weather conditions around the world, including wildfires. bush, extreme heat and flooding.

Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, a think tank that has worked with UN bodies on climate change, said foreign leaders were in disbelief when they saw the footage.

“It at least subliminally plays a role in how Australia is viewed,” he says.

Mr Merzian said the performance “consolidated Australia’s position as a lobbyist for the coal industry in international diplomacy”.

Release of the Green Climate Fund on talkback radio

Until 2018, Australia had maintained a reputation as a leader on a crucial aspect of international climate diplomacy: climate finance.

Climate finance is essentially money that flows from rich countries to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change, and also to grow without increasing their emissions.

Without it, there is no hope for global agreements on climate change, and no way the developing world can afford to make the necessary changes.

The key mechanism for governments to provide this money is the United Nations Green Climate Fund (GCF).

Australia helped set up the GCF and Australian diplomat Howard Bamsey led it from 2017 to 2018.

But shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Scott Morrison appeared on the Alan Jones show and announced that Australia would stop contributing to the fund.

“[We are not] forced to go and pour money into this big climate fund, we are not going to do it either. So I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that kind of nonsense, ”he said.

By ceasing its contributions, Australia also lost its seat on the Fund’s board.

Mr. Bamsey said that the Pacific island countries were particularly affected by this decision.

“Australia’s investment in the fund has yielded huge benefits for the Pacific and with Australia leaving the board… the Pacific has lost this champion,” he says.

Mr. Merzian is scathing about this decision. “Now Australia is the only developed country in the world that is not part of the United Nations Green Climate Fund. And the Pacific in particular asks Australia, “Why not? “”

Scott Morrison crouches and smiles next to children floating in the water.
Scott Morrison pictured at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in 2019.(Twitter: Pacific Islands Forum)

Australia’s technical reliability is well regarded

Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor often points out that Australia is a world leader in emissions transparency.

“No country has provided quarterly emissions updates by sector, by gas, over an extended period of time like Australia has done, and this transparency will continue,” he said in announcing the target. zero net by 2050.

Mr Bamsey agreed that this is an area where Australia has maintained a strong international reputation.

He said it started with Australia being a key architect of aspects of the Paris Agreement, and continues with our delegations being reliable.

“You can ask Australia a question about something and you’ll get a solid, thoughtful response, and everyone knows that,” Bamsey said.

Our commitments are not cumulative

Perhaps most important to our reputation is what we do now and what we promise to do over the next decade.

And by this measure, rankings often place us near the bottom of the developed world.

Our 2030 targets, as they stand, are better than those of New Zealand and South Korea, but they are seen by scientists as grossly insufficient. And they’re much worse than Canada, Japan, the EU, the US, and the UK.

At the same time, as the US and EU have pledged to cut methane emissions and the UK mobilizes support to ‘make coal history’, Australia remains the most the world’s largest coal exporter and the second largest exporter of LNG, has embarked on a “gas-induced recovery” and has so far refused to sign either pledge.

Bill Hare says the world is not impressed with Australia on this point.

“What they are seeing in Australia is that no finger has been lifted to do anything to reduce emissions,” he says.

“It’s just letting the story unfold at the speed it is unfolding, which is too slow.”

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