The outcome of Copenhagen is whatever you want it to be, really, and I’m not referring to Kevin Rudd’s unenthusiastic endorsement of it as “a solid, strong step forward”.  For right-wingers, it’s an opportunity to exclaim “I told you so”.  For the Greens it’s the basis for a call to be dealt back into the Senate game on the CPRS.  Sinophobes can pin the blame on China (not unreasonably, actually).  Some on the Left have used it to push their new-old meme of attacking Barack Obama for somehow, well, failing to be the Messiah.

Quite what people expected of a UN conference if not a debacle and a face-saving but otherwise fairly pointless piece of paper is a mystery, but that’s OK, we’ll all just fit it into our pre-prepared worldviews and keep going.

But the UN process remains irrelevant for Australian policymakers at this point.

Let me explain that in some detail.  It is not irrelevant to Australia per se, because we’ll be the earliest and hardest-hit developed economy when it comes to climate change, and we need the rest of the world to do something about it, because we can’t stop it ourselves.  We were, out of developed countries, the biggest loser from Copenhagen because we’re already suffering the impacts of climate change and they are simply going to get worse until the rest of the world gets its act together. That’s an important reason why the failure of Copenhagen should be of particular concern to Australians.

But for policymakers, who are charged with making decisions about the things they control, rather than what the rest of the world controls, it is irrelevant.  We are one of the world’s biggest carbon polluters per capita.  What the rest of the world does isn’t especially important now because eventually it will start moving to a low-carbon economy, and we have further to go than pretty much anyone else.  There is little danger that somehow we will accidentally do ourselves a disservice and drastically cut our emissions below those of the rest of the world.  As Ross Garnaut said, people worried about Australia acting unilaterally should not worry — there is no danger of us being a leader.  In fact we have much work to do even to get back to the average emissions level of most of the developed world.

Australia can afford a “no regrets” emissions abatement policy — that is, we just need to cut, and start cutting as soon as possible, with no real risk that we’re going to overtake the rest of the world in curbing emissions.

Indeed, with the failure of an international process, that merely gives Australia more time to exploit its skills base, educational levels and bountiful renewable resources to try to regain an edge in low-carbon technologies in areas such as  energy and transport.

But if the reality is that Copenhagen would never have changed the task ahead of Australia, Kevin Rudd insisted that in fact it was crucial.  Eager for a reason to bring back the CPRS Bill before the end of the year and maximise pressure on the coalition, he made Copenhagen the key to Australia’s path into a low-carbon future.  The coalition is now returning the favour, using the failure at Copenhagen as justification for inaction.

The Prime Minister is therefore stuck with defending Copenhagen as a “solid, strong step forward”.

He deserves no sympathy.  Tony Abbott may be cynically exploiting events, but it is no more cynical than the Prime Minister and Penny Wong’s determination to use climate change as a political weapon, and if Abbott turns around and uses it as a weapon right back at them, that’s entirely fair.

Copenhagen was not, of course, any kind of vindication of the coalition.  Given it started from the basis that climate change is real, it directly contradicts the view of Abbott that climate change is “crap”.  It also locked in a two-degree temperature rise as a goal, which would require of Australia emission reductions many multiples of the tiny cuts achievable through Abbott’s magic pudding solution of land use management (minus tree-planting, which the Nationals don’t like, and plus vegetation clearing, which the Nationals love) and turning off more lights.

Worse, it established a framework for climate aid from developed countries of, eventually, up to $100 billion a year, to help developing countries curb their own emissions as their economies grow and to enable them to adapt to climate change impacts.

On the face of it, there’s nothing but political pain in that commitment for Rudd.  Abbott has already declared he thinks the money could be better spent in other environmental areas (handouts to Australian farmers, presumably).  Ron Boswell has been running a xenophobic campaign against climate aid for months.  Alan Jones has been touting it as evidence of his Dan Brown-style conspiracy theory that climate change is some gigantic UN plot to tax us.  Conditions are ripe for a populist campaign against handouts to bludging foreigners under the guise of “climate aid”, even if a lot of Australians might think that, having spent a century causing the problem, Western countries have a greater responsibility for doing something about it.

But if an Abbott government insisted on being the only developed country not prepared to contribute to climate aid, it would isolate Australia, particularly from the UK and the US, which have committed to substantial contributions to developing countries.  And if Abbott decided to face down the likes of Boswell and agree to any climate aid in order to keep onside with the Obama Administration and a Cameron government in the UK, it would have to come directly from the Budget, whereas the government can draw on its CPRS revenue, even if it doesn’t come back into positive revenue territory for many years.

I suspect how the climate aid issue is played by both sides will become as important politically as any other aspect of the climate change issue next year.  Let’s see if Abbott is smart enough to realise the trap in a populist campaign against it.

Where to from here for the government?  It is committed to the reintroduction of the Rudd-Turnbull version of the CPRS as soon as Parliament returns.  There’s a summer break to go before we get to that point.  “Living on the Earth’s driest and hottest continent, we are already seeing the harsh impact of climate change with devastating droughts, heat waves and bush fires,” Malcolm Turnbull wrote in the pages of one of his old employers, The Times, on Saturday.

The perspective on climate change might look very different six long, hot weeks from now.

Peter Fray

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