Australia is using the anticipated passage of its carbon pricing scheme to make a renewed push for more ambitious targets on the international stage — but in doing so it has sought to bury the pretence that an international agreement can be reached in the next few years.

Under a joint submission to the UN with Norway, Australia has mapped out a scenario that would create a stepped path to a new treaty by 2015, and to implement measures that would ensure the international community actually meets its political agreement to limit global warming to 2° rather than just talking about it. Such a move would require Australia to lift its own emissions reduction target to 25%.

It is often lost in the crude nature of the domestic political debate that the bipartisan 5% target is a mere down-payment on the action needed to avoid the risks of dangerous climate change. Australia has promised to cut its emissions by 5-25% by 2020 over 1990 levels, depending on the strength of international action, but has not had the means to achieve those higher targets. Should the Clean Energy Future Package be passed by parliament, it will finally have the mechanism to back up its promises, and now aims to use that strengthened position to take a more high-profile position in the international debate and to inject new momentum in the talks.

Currently, the sum total of individual country commitments falls well short of the 2° target enshrined in the Cancun agreement. This is known as the “gigatonne gap,” although there is clearly more than one gigatonne missing from the equation. According to some estimates, the agreement would only succeed in limiting average temperature growth to 3.5°, way too high for the liking of most scientists. Some of the pledges made to the accord are hard to quantify because their baselines are not clear, or are based on a fuzzy “business as usual” criteria.

The Australia/Norway submission proposes a schedule that seeks to ratify exactly what those pledges mean and how they translate into tonnes of emissions abated, and how to gradually increase those targets so that they reach the target by the time a binding international agreement might be attained, possibly by 2015.

There is no expectation that this year’s UN climate change conference in Durban will produce the framework on a legally binding international treaty, or even agreement on what might follow the Kyoto treaty, which is due to expire in 2012.

However, Australia and other countries consider it crucial that Durban at least concludes with a clear path forward to creating a new treaty by 2015 — a point underlined by UNFCCC secretary Christina Figueres this week. 2015 is  considered the earliest possible date given the nature of US politics, and the work required to bring the emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa into a new framework with binding targets.

However, unless there is a major change in the make-up of the US Congress, or a change in tune from the Republicans, even that may be ambitious. Australia’s emission trading scheme relies on the existence of a solid international market by 2015/16, but it is likely that Australia will be part of a regional scheme rather than a global one at that time.

The joint submission with Norway proposes a “stepwise” approach from Durban to 2015 that will provide “time and space for countries to build confidence and capacity, and ensure a robust outcome over time.”

A spokesman for Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said the document reinforces Australia’s view that a legal agreement with binding commitments from all major economies provides the strongest basis for global action to tackle climate change.

“Existing commitments under the Kyoto Protocol end in December 2012 and Australia supports a binding agreement of all major emitters as soon as practicable after that,” he said. “Australia has proposed a range of actions countries could take in the international negotiations, from 2011 to 2015, to help build an ambitious and legally binding mitigation framework.”

Climate Institute deputy CEO Erwin Jackson said the document is significant and represents a change in focus that has emerged from the disappointment of Copenhagen and the tentative progress of Durban. “We are in a transitional phase where domestic action is leading international negotiations,” he said. “Before it was the other way around.”

Australia, presuming the Clean Energy Future package is passed through Parliament, which it is scheduled to do round about the time that the Durban conference begins in late November, is suddenly in a position where it has the mechanism to deliver on its pledges. “Australia has always been a middle power,” Jackson says. “Now it can say it has the ability to meet its targets.”

The Australia-Norway document says enhanced action is essential meet the global goal of holding temperature rise below 2°, or “even below”. This is a reference to the push from some countries for a target that aims at limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°, or in some cases 1°. In Cancun, countries agreed to a review period between 2013 and 2015, presumably to take into account the latest science to be produced by the IPCC.

Australia and Norway want clear rules to be established so that mitigation undertakings can be properly assessed and understood. This would also include rules for the accounting of market mechanisms that prevent double-counting; and a periodic process for scaling up ambition levels and mitigation efforts over time.

Curiously, however, the proposal says that while all countries should quantify their expected emissions outcomes, developed countries will be “held accountable” to the emissions outcome of their targets; whereas developing countries would “only be bound to implement their actions, not the specific emissions outcome”.

This is not likely to impress the likes of the US, which refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol because of the lack of binding targets on developing nations, and the likes of Japan, Canada and Russia, which have refused to sign a new treaty or even a extension of Kyoto on the same basis.

Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, reinforced this point on Tuesday in New York, when he said that the US would not back an agreement that does not apply “equal legal force to major developing countries” such as China, India and Brazil.

*This first appeared on Climate Spectator.

Peter Fray

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