As the do-or-die climate change meeting in Copenhagen looms (80 days and counting) and countries prepare for talks in New York and then Pittsburgh’s G20 meeting at the end of the week, today Climate Change Minister Penny Wong announced a “compromise proposal“, in which developing countries would not have to commit to binding, economy-wide emission-reduction targets but instead would have to submit their own binding “schedule” of how and where their reductions could be made.

Wong and Prime Minister Rudd marched to New York today with their plan, and the idea has been described by US President Barack Obama’s special climate-change envoy, Todd Stern, as a “constructive proposal”. Erwin Jackson, policy and research director at The Climate Institute, decoded the jargon for Crikey this morning:

Q: What does this new “compromise” plan mean? What’s the difference between a binding emissions reductions target for developing nations and a binding “schedule” of how reductions could be made?

A: Australia’s proposal is attracting increasing interest as it potentially builds a bridge between the Kyoto world and the new post-2012 world where fair, international commitments from a broader range of countries — especially the US and China — will be essential if an effective binding agreement is to be reached.

It includes economy-wide commitments to reduce emissions by developed countries but would also allow other economies such as  Mexico and South Korea, traditionally not classified as “developed”, to register the emission trading systems they are developing in an international “schedule”. China’s efforts would also be documented in a schedule, including the key commitments from its five-year plan. After countries have put their commitments on the table, the international community would then assess whether the individual and collective effort is sufficient. If not, they would negotiate with each other to reach an agreed level of global reductions.

On face value, the schedules approach seems like a possible way forward. As international law experts have noted, the schedule approach could provide a flexible and iterative means of expressing climate action. However, as we have seen in the past, countries will take any opportunity to weaken their own commitments. The credibility of this approach will depend on its ability to strengthen global action and not lead to a system that just sees countries registering existing national commitments. For example, countries would only gain access to international carbon markets and financing if they had an agreed schedule. The devil, as ever, will be in the final detail.

Q: How important to negotiations is the idea that developed nations take responsibility first and foremost for their emissions and take the lead?

A: Without developed countries committing to ambitious targets, backed by domestic legislation, and clear plans for low carbon financing in developing countries, developing and emerging economies will be reluctant to commit to internationally verified actions. A key principle that underpins the UN Climate Convention is that developed nations must take the lead in global action as they are responsible for three quarters of the carbon pollution in the atmosphere.

However, if Copenhagen is to be successful we will need to break the back of the artificial definitions that currently divide what are called Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries. Some countries who were developing (or non-Annex 1) in 1992 when the Climate Convention was agreed are now OECD countries (for example, Mexico) and China has since emerged as world’s largest emitter. Fair commitments from all major economies will therefore be important in Copenhagen but the principle of stronger reduction commitments and financing from developed countries remains a key issue for the final outcome.

Q: Are the talks for Copenhagen really as off track as Rudd is making out? Why does everyone seem to be downplaying expectations?

A: The road to Copenhagen is at a critical junction and without an injection of momentum from heads of government then we will arrive in at the meeting in December with the major issues still largely unresolved. This will likely lead to a cobbled together agreement where countries point to the actions they are committed to domestically and to some progress on issues such as reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries in an attempt to Greenwash success.

This underscores the importance of the meetings in the US this week and in particular for the G20 to make progress on the issues of how we will unlock private and public sector financing in developing countries.

Q: How much clout does Australia wield at the UN meetings this week? Does anyone really listen to us or is this “plan” just played out for the PR potential back home?

A: Australia has a strong record as an influential “middle power”. This has been positive in international agreements in banning mining in Antarctica, and destructive in climate talks over the past decade. Since Australia announced its preparedness to move to a 25% reduction below 2000 levels by 2020, close observers of the talks have noticed a more positive and influential Australian delegation within UN and other climate-change meetings.

Australia’s schedules approach is one example of this where it is gaining increasing interest from the US, EU member states and has not been squashed my major emerging economies such as China. However, to maximise its influence Australia needs to clearly articulate its vision of how to unlock private and public sector financing in developing countries.

Q: Is any one nation leading the discussion on funding for developing nations and emissions targets and prepared to lead by example?

A: Norway, Tuvalu, Denmark and Mexico are nations who have put forward innovative financing proposals. However, of the major developed countries only Gordon Brown in the UK has put forward a vision of how Copenhagen can address low-carbon financing.

No major country in particular is in a leadership position on targets. Most Kyoto developed countries have put forward targets that would see their overall emission reduced by about 15% on 1990 levels by 2020. Countries such as the US, China, Brazil and India are prepared to take action domestically, but are currently not prepared to subject themselves to international verification and/or accounting standards. This will be a central issue in Copenhagen.

Q: How important is it that the US senate pass their trading scheme before Copenhagen?

A: It is critical to an ambitious outcome in Copenhagen. Most major economies are moving towards legislated approaches to emission reductions or low carbon development in advance of Copenhagen. Outside Australia this includes countries from the UK to China to most recently signals from India that they are moving in this direction. However, without the US having at least passed a Bill through the Senate, it will be difficult to achieve the political agreement needed in Copenhagen to deliver a legally binding treaty over the coming years.

However, China in particular is yet to play its full hand, which will have a strong impact on US and international climate politics.

View our Crikey Clarifier archive

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off