Climate change is a complex threat delving deep into the national resource base of each country, while at the same time reaching high into the international stratosphere of foreign policy and energy security. If we are to succeed, this tension has to be reconciled, countries have to put forward targets, programmes and policies that are consistent with national circumstances that at the same time don’t drag down the shared response to climate change. For if countries only put forward what is practical and doable at the national level without actively engaging with the rest of the world, its expectations and willingness to act, then a race to the bottom would ensue.

This race would encourage a hunkering down mentality, one that builds mechanisms in national legislation to protect against the competitor and ensure that “our” jobs are secure and “our” energy prices do not rise too much. Rather we need a race that encourages the best of each country to come through, that encourages a can-do mentality, that reaches to the outer limits of what works nationally while grasping the outreached hand (not the fist) of other allies around the world ready to begin pragmatic and ambitious action to save humanity from the worst of the climate crisis.

By deciding to increase the level of action Australia is ready to implement nationally based on what others are ready to commit to, it seems that Prime Minister Rudd is extending an open hand to others that have yet to put forward specific proposals on their level of effort. Australia is tremendously vulnerable to climate change, now famous both for its fires and its bleaching reefs. Australia’s government has decided a global goal of 450 ppm-e or lower is in its national interest.

Australia has made an offer to the rest of the world. Prime Minister Rudd has said if we reach high to tackle this together through a global agreement in Copenhagen, we will reach higher than the 15 percent cut we announced in December.

This model is not new, the European Union has also decided on what level of effort it is ready to pursue domestically and then laid out its offer to the world, 10% more. Europe’s offer is also a real one, requiring significant changes in how the EU pursues national energy and economic policies if the world decides to match its level of ambition.

Many within Europe are looking to build their future employment gains and export markets on renewables and energy efficiency. Germany is leading the pack, estimating that by 2020 500,000 jobs will have been created from climate change policies and 20 billion euros saved from energy imports. However, Europe’s offer to the world is not complete. It has not come forward with proposals on finance and technology and therefore its international credibility is highly questioned by developing countries.

The question is whether Australia will also follow that half-way path, or go further in providing leadership. The final jury on the credibility of Australia’s latest move is still out, for its work is not yet complete. By making its level of effort so dependent on that global outcome, Australia has to work for it. If Australia expects developing countries to take on the types of reductions and actions it has outlined, it must put forward an ambitious proposition on both finance and technology cooperation before the next negotiating session in June. These two areas are of core importance for developing countries and essential to decarbonise their economies.

With a full package in hand before June, Australia would be “back” in the international debate. Without finance and technology Australia will remain stuck in its national politics holding it back from implementing cap and trade this year.

With such a package in hand, Australia also could engage the United States, encouraging the Obama Administration to make such an offer linking its reduction target with a global agreement. At the moment, some US forces are retreating into protectionist mode, putting forward protectionist proposals, like border tax adjustments and carbon tariffs, that are a non-starter internationally. Australia could be a credible actor to counteract that approach.

The world needs a leader right now ready to take ambitious stances on climate change and a global low carbon economic recovery and to work with others to do the same. The coming weeks are a key test to see if Prime Minister Rudd is the man.

Jennifer Morgan has over 15 years’ experience as a climate change advocate within the international negotiations, including advising Tony Blair and the German Chancellor’s chief scientific advisor on diplomatic strategy.

Peter Fray

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