It’s one of the ironies of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s push to have Australia occupy one of the temporary seats on the United Nations Security Council, that the vote may come down to how poor countries judge Australia’s performance on climate change.

Rudd, of course, was the prime minister who pulled the pin on his government’s bid to push through an emissions trading scheme, and his successor, Julia Gillard, was one of a key quartet that urged him to do so.

Poor countries were not impressed by the decision, which Professor Ross Garnaut again has identified as being a huge drag on the progress of international action. In the midst of the Cancun negotiations, it was suggested that some members of the Association of Small Island States — which groups together the most vulnerable nations in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa — had threatened to withdraw their support of the UN Security Council vote if Australia did not toe the line on some crucial negotiations.

Officially, that potential snub was played down. But it did underline how easily Rudd’s campaign to attract the African and Pacific Island vote could be undermined by Australia’s climate change response; and also the importance of Australia’s stance to the position of other key countries in climate change talks.

Garnaut, on Monday, repeated his contention — first broached on the release of his Climate Change Review in 2008 — that Australia has the potential to act as a kind of veto to a binding global climate treaty.

Garnaut says the influence of Australia’s climate change policy on US efforts is often downplayed. He says action by Australia would be hugely beneficial to the political push for climate change action in the US. If the US is able to take action, as the Obama government is constantly professing it wants to do, it will have a domino effect across the globe. There is no hope of a binding global treaty without it.

If Garnaut is right about this, then it might help explain why the volume of debate is about to be turned up to critical levels about the scale of Australia’s climate change efforts. Having put the policy back on the agenda through their leading member, BHP Billiton, the leading mining companies and their lobby groups, who are about to announce record profits after huge jumps in commodity prices, have defined limiting the scope and reach of a carbon price as their principal task for the year. And just as the fossil fuel industry was so keen to snuff out the efforts of the state of Californian, less their ideas gain credence elsewhere in the union, the anti-climate change lobby is keen to keep Australia’s efforts as modest as they can.

In Australia, the primary goal is to retain the level of compensation that emitters were to receive in the CPRS agreed between Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull — and their ability to convince the public that not much is happening overseas is crucial to the challenge. Which is why they sought to pre-empt Garnaut’s report on the level of international climate change action by suggesting that much of the recent assessments had been “greatly exaggerated”.

Garnaut, of course, suggests otherwise, pointing to rapid and surprising progress among the major developing countries, the efforts in the US — which are mostly in the hands of regulators and individual states — and in China. The latter, he suggests, is closely watched because it is the largest emitter, but he points that while it has opened a huge amount of coal-fired power stations in the past two years, these have replaced nearly as many old, dirty ones that have been closed.

The Chinese political system, he says, lends itself to such transformative actions, and seems to have decided to do so (which slightly undermines his veto case). And the implications, and the extent, of China’s actions should be easily understood by the mining community. “I’m a miner too,” Garnaut said, alluding to his recent role as chairman of Lihir Gold, and revealing that some in the industry had begrudged his position on climate change action. But, he added optimistically, he was confident in the ability of the “best of the mining industry” to make useful contributions to the policy debate.

The contentious points in this debate will be the same as before — the price of carbon, the ambition of Australia’s abatement targets, and the extent of compensation. Garnaut was not being drawn on these on Monday — he’s saving most of that for late March, after he has laid more groundwork.

A further irony is that while Australia has as much, if not more, to lose from runaway climate change as any country — and as much to gain from a clean energy economy, as Garnaut points out — the fact is that right now it is spending considerably more on adaptation than it is on mitigation.

This is a situation reinforced by the government’s decision to cut “green schemes” to pay for rebuilding efforts following the Queensland flood and cyclone damage. Some people, notably those who dismiss the human contribution to climate change, think this is the right approach — although it is curious that those who reject the idea that cutting emissions can reduce the impact of climate change are so sure that using a gazillion tonnes of concrete can somehow tame it.

It’s likely to be an expensive policy option. How would it play to the international community, Garnaut was asked on Monday. “I think it’s more of a message to Australia,” he replied. “And rather an obvious one I would have thought.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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