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Australia signs up to lame duck climate deal — with good reason

Australia is to sign on to the Son of Kyoto, a dummy UN protocol which aims to get the world back on track on climate change. Is this a good idea, and what does it mean for the carbon price?

Australia has today announced it will sign up to a lame duck international treaty to tackle climate change. But a lame duck is, after all, better than no duck at all.

The world’s great hope on restraining global warming is the UN’s Kyoto Protocol (KP), which expires in less than two months. It was supposed to be replaced by a tougher, broader treaty, but due to underwhelming interest from most countries, a decision has been made to limp along with a Son of Kyoto.

Officially called a “second commitment period to the KP”, it’s expected to run from 2013 for four to seven years. The idea is that rich, high-emitting countries take on legally-binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet announced Australia would ink the deal in a speech in Melbourne this morning, ahead of the UN’s annual climate AGM,which begins in Doha, Qatar later this month.

Although the Kyoto Protocol binds only a limited number of developed countries, it is still important in the international arena,” Combet said, warning that Australia signing up was “not a blank cheque”.

The Gillard government is hitching its wagon to a feeble global deal, but there’s a good reason for doing that, as explained below. Domestically, the decision won’t have a huge impact. It won’t change our targets to cut emissions by 2020, although it effectively forces us to meet those targets — and binds the Coalition more firmly to action on climate change should it win the election. Signing on to the KP makes Australia’s carbon price easier and cheaper to run (because it’s easier to trade international carbon permits when we’re in the KP tent).

It’s a deal to force big emitters to cut emissions, but unfortunately the big emitters have left.”

So why is this a lame duck? Combet didn’t dwell on it this morning, but the protocol is looking hollow. It’s a deal to force big emitters to cut emissions, but unfortunately the big emitters have left.

Son of Kyoto is made up of Europe (whose emissions are sagging due to the best proven technique to reduce emissions: recession), plus Australia, and the power states of New Zealand and Kazakhstan (check out the list of who’s signed up in this UN document).

Here are the top ten emitters in order (sign-ups to KP mark two are in bold):

  1. China
  2. US
  3. India
  4. Russia
  5. Japan
  6. Germany
  7. South Korea
  8. Canada
  9. Indonesia
  10. UK

So why would Australia, 14th on that list, agree to sign up when the big emitters won’t? This is about being a good green citizen and trying to build momentum towards a deal that could actually work. At last year’s UN climate AGM in Durban, countries agreed that if the KP was extended for rich countries, then all countries would work towards a universal, legally-binding climate deal to start by … wait for it … 2020.

Late as it is, this is really the only chance of addressing climate change. Countries are agreeing to the KP as a goodwill gesture while hoping for a separate, better treaty. Combet recognised that: “Finalising a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in Doha helps pave the way for the new agreement to be finalised in 2015,” he said.

Andrew Macintosh, associate director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law and Policy, was agnostic about Combet’s announcement, warning that the UN’s climate process was “well and truly not on track” to address climate change.

Macintosh noted that Australia signing on to the KP would make it easier to link our carbon price with the EU’s. In August, the government announced it would link up the two schemes so firms could use European carbon permits (which are quite cheap, about eight euros), while restricting the use of bargain-basement UN carbon permits (currently fetching a dollar or two apiece). Sticking with the KP makes it easier to use both in the carbon price, which could make the scheme more stable, easier and a little cheaper.

Macintosh is concerned that Australia may squib on meeting its 2020 emissions target by carrying over surplus emissions savings from the past few years. Watch out for this issue at Doha. He also noted the KPs rules on forest emissions could be a problem for us — especially given those rules were written for Russia, which has walked away from the deal.

Erwin Jackson from The Climate Institute welcomed Combet’s decision, telling Crikey that “it will build positive momentum going into Doha”. Jackson, who will attend the Doha summit, played down expectations of fast progress, saying it was more about establishing a process towards reaching the deal. There is unlikely to be an “aha” moment at Doha.

Jackson noted the dynamics of climate politics have shifted. Back at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, participants expected a catch-all treaty to solve the problem. Now the opposite is happening; countries are taking their own action on emissions, while there is slow progress towards a treaty which will come after the real action.

The US will be interesting on this. There’s little chance of a carbon price, but Obama can take administrative action through standards etc. He said in his victory speech: “We want our children to live in an America that … isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

A sleeper issue not really addressed by Combet today is the oft-repeated claim that our target is to reduce emissions by 5% by 2020. Is that correct? According to the bipartisan rules, Australia will cut emissions by between 5 and 25%, depending on what other countries do (Combet stuck with these rules today). Analysis of other countries’ actions by The Climate Institute indicates the target should be a 10-12% reduction. It would be interesting to hear ex-climate adviser Ross Garnaut’s views on this.

With all the domestic hullabaloo over carbon pricing and emissions targets, it’s easy to forget that we are a pretty good international green citizen — relatively speaking. Today’s announcement by Combet continues that. Australia is signing up to brave, doomed, dummy UN protocol because that may help get the world back on track on climate change. We don’t have to sign up; most big emitters aren’t.

Yes, Australia has sky-high per capita emissions, is a major coal exporter, and is running a carbon price where we increase emissions while paying poor countries to cut theirs. But in a world where precious little is being done on climate change multilaterally, signing on to the KP is no mean feat.

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  • 1
    Ian
    Posted Friday, 9 November 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    All too little, too late. Unfortunately its all just a game now. My take on the whole thing is a big shrug. It’s hopelessly inadequate and our kids and grand kids are left now with the very real prospect (likelihood I would say) of a chaotic and hopeless future characterized by ongoing struggles for diminishing resources in the face of ever increasing climatic disasters.

    Looking back on it now I think 911 was the first major step down the road to chaos. Copenhagen was the second and its the neoconservative capitalist system that has been an ongoing cause of our problems and presented the major stumbling block to the more sustainable and equitable future we might have hoped for.

    Meanwhile the population of the world keeps going up and up with little effort to address that issue either. How are all these billions going to cope in a chaotic world?

  • 2
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Friday, 9 November 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s OK Ian, we’ll be alright. If anyone thinks there’s nothing being done about it why don’t we just pay attention to the nearest place to our homes where a slightly rising sea level is soon going to require shoreline protection - seawalls etc. Let the Americans worry about their shorelines - what are we doing in our local area about our local shorelines and river mouths? In local government after local government, ratepayers are faced with potentially staggering costs which are just assumed will be covered by federal and state governments. In many places, rockwalls for dune and shoreline protection will ruin the locale in so many ways that wind farms will seem like trivialities in comparison.
    For most people the debate seems out of reach and yet for people who live near the coast it should be held up right in our faces. Coastline protection and the necessary accompanying land and street -scaping is incredibly intrusive, expensive and maintenance demanding. Decisions about it are in our hands.

  • 3
    Ian
    Posted Friday, 9 November 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Adaptation is okay Hugh. In fact it will be a survival necessity in the future but we will have to adapt to more than our coastlines being inundated. As the hordes of Bangladesh, the Maldives, Indo-China begin their inundation of our northern coastlines we will have to do more than chuck a few sand bags at the problem if we are to contain that flood. Will Nauru be big enough to contain them all or will it already be filled with poor refugees who have fled their war-torn homelands in search of somewhere… anywhere for a less hopeless resistance?

    I’m letting my imagination run away with me. Or am I?

  • 4
    John Bennetts
    Posted Friday, 9 November 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Hugh, adaptation includes adaptation to:
    Desertification,
    Changing water regimes (more droughts, more floods, less annual rainfall in many parts of Oz),
    Warmer oceans (including collapse of most life forms within them and certainly more than simply coral reefs),
    Stronger cyclones and wildfires,
    Resource wars (probable but I certainly hope not), and
    Much more besides.

    I don’t pretend that this list is complete or even that it is accurate - it is off the top of my head yet includes some of the things that worry me, right or wrong.

    My guess is that before my life is at an end, I will witness stark, undeniable occurrances of at least some of these. Puny sea walls seem to me to be addressing one of the lesser symptoms of a truly huge problem.

    Why aren’t the rich nations, including Australia, doing much more right now about the causes? To say that others are not doing the right thing is a child’s argument on the same level as a 4-year old’s attempt at justifying taking something which is not his by saying that someone else did likewise.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, as we all heard at our mothers’ knees.

  • 5
    Ian
    Posted Saturday, 10 November 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Excuse me, I meant to say existence not resistance (last word, 2nd last paragraph).

    John, it’s all very sad and it’s hard to know what to do. So few people concern themselves with the problem and even fewer are prepared to do anything about it.

  • 6
    Sanjay
    Posted Wednesday, 14 November 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    If Indonesia gets paid not to cut down their forrests and then goes and cuts down the same forrest maybe we should give the money to Ausaid and bypass the middle men

  • 7
    Ian
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    I don’t know much about Ausaid but I instinctively am inclined not to fully trust them to do the best thing with their money. I would be inclined to rather give it to Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth who care and are not government sponsored.

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