The domestic political headache that the Federal government has created through the current design of its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and inadequate targets is well documented. As Australian policy makers, the media and commentator’s focus on the prospect of the survival of the CPRS in the Senate another process is occurring which will help shape Australia’s national interests — our economy, our security and our lifestyle.

Australia’s Climate Change Minister has today joined seventeen other high level diplomatic envoys in Washington D.C. for the first preparatory meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. “The Forum”, as Washington’s officials like it to be called, was initiated by President Obama and will culminate in June at a meeting between President Obama, the Prime Minister and leaders from countries including China, Germany, India, Japan, the UK and Australia. This is a forum of the world’s major emitters, not just major economies.

This Major Emitters Forum is a critical, if informal, input into the UN process that is heading towards a new “Copenhagen agreement” at the end of the year. The latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn earlier this month saw negotiators almost “sleep walking” through the process. A new political mandate from the leaders of the largest and most influential countries is needed to breathe life — if not caffeine — into the UN process.

The political momentum these talks deliver into the UN process will have a major bearing on whether the agreement in December fits Australia’s stated national interest of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at “450 ppm-e or lower”. At the moment, the numbers countries are putting on the table — including Australia’s 5-15% reduction target by 2020 — are not adding up such an outcome.

While the science increasingly tells us we need to get much lower than 450 ppm-e, at the moment we are sleepwalking towards a 550 ppm-e or even higher world which will ensure devastating impacts on global, regional and Australian economies, security and natural processes.

This is the challenge to the Prime Minister as he prepares for his next face-to-face meeting with the USA president and other world leaders. To achieve an outcome in Australia consistent with our interests, the PM needs to go armed with an internationally credible target range in his arsenal. Without at least a 25% reduction target by 2020 then Australia has to start the conversation by overcoming perceptions that Australia is squibbing on its own target and is prepared in a 450 ppm-e agreement to free ride on the actions of others until 2020.

As was reported in The Australian, countries like South Africa called the 5 to 15% targets an “opening bid” and said privately the Prime Minister had “surrendered” the “bridging role” and “moral leadership” he could have exercised after signing up to the Kyoto Protocol last year.

The other deal breaking issue that the Forum will address at future meetings is the developed world’s international obligation to deliver financing to developing countries to facilitate investments in low carbon technologies and infrastructure. With many developed countries, particularly Australia, increasingly dependent on growth in these economies, success in achieving these investments is of profound importance for the global and our economy.

Australia has yet to move beyond high level discussions on financing and has the opportunity to put forward practical proposals to match developed country finance with developing country emission reduction actions. (A good start would be to stop the isolationist language of every cent of auction revenue from the CPRS being directed to “Australian” business and households. Even the US congress is signalled that it will use auction revenue to help fund emission reductions in developing countries.)

Having the minus 25% in the target range and concrete proposals on financing mechanisms would put the Prime Minister in a leadership position of building bridges between developed and developing countries.

An agreement in Copenhagen can deliver on Australia’s national interest. If successful, the new Copenhagen agreement and accompanied national policies will also drive a wave of new investment and job growth in the clean energy and other low carbon industries that will form the foundation of global economic activity for decades to come. Australia can help deliver this but it needs the Prime Minister to break cleanly from our current targets and signal our willingness to play our full part in international climate action — both at the Major Emitters Forum and UN talks.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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