Recent headlines have loudly claimed Australia is “going it alone” by tackling climate change. This is based on two misconceptions, and both are in full flourish as the world’s governments converge for the latest round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa today.
The first is that the UN climate meeting will be a failure if it doesn’t produce an international treaty binding the world’s heaviest polluters to targets to cut pollution. The second is that without an all-encompassing treaty, no country will take its own action.
These myths are either a misunderstanding of the current international process or convenient spin designed to delay or stop action on climate change, which would reduce our economic dependence on coal, oil and gas.
Neither is a legitimate characterisation of one of the world’s most complex and ambitious negotiation processes or the reality that a sizeable number of countries are already moving inexorably towards a low-carbon economy under their own steam.
The first misconception lies partly in the history of these talks. They were established in 1992 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty and following other successful international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer. Global environmental treaty making was in its heyday.
The UNFCCC produced another treaty in 1997 — the Kyoto Protocol — which placed legally binding commitments on advanced economies to cut pollution. It also established an international carbon market. Together these sparked the start of major investment in clean energy in wealthy countries and in poorer countries through global emissions trading.
Unfortunately, what most people remember about UN talks and climate negotiations is the chaotic 2009 Copenhagen meeting.
Copenhagen, with its over-hyped expectations of achieving a new treaty and resultant perceptions of failure, eroded public confidence in the UN process and set up the “treaty or bust” mentality by which the Durban talks are now wrongly set to be judged.
Despite its disappointments, Copenhagen proved to be an important turning point — even in the absence of a binding international treaty, domestic policy to cut pollution and slow climate change has now reached unprecedented levels around the world.
Following the Copenhagen Accord, UN talks in Cancun last year resulted in countries representing 80% of global emissions pledging to control their pollution levels under a formal UN agreement. This was a big step forward from the Kyoto Protocol’s current 25% coverage of global pollution levels.
The new reality at Durban is that we have moved well beyond the “treaty before action” mode of climate diplomacy into the parallel objectives of “action and agreement”.
Australia’s new climate laws fit this model. With bi-partisan agreement, we are committed internationally to a 5-25% cut to carbon pollution by 2020, to be met by policy mechanisms embedded in domestic legislation.
This is consistent with the actions of many other countries — for example, the 27 nations of the EU have put in place policies to meet their targets and China’s latest five-year plan has taken its international commitments and made them domestically binding. In the US, the EPA is regulating sectors that account for more than 70% of US carbon pollution through emission performance standards. While not internationally binding or sufficient, they are binding on domestic industries.
The world outside the UN climate negotiations has changed fundamentally, which brings us to the second misconception — that nothing less than an international treaty can make countries reduce emissions.
While a treaty is important for increasing countries’ confidence in pursuing stronger policies, many other factors are spurring global action.
In recent times, international obligations have become interwoven with domestically driven initiatives to control local air pollution, increase energy security, build new local industries, commercialise and export low carbon technology and foster low carbon competitive advantage.
This combination has driven action well beyond countries covered the by the Kyoto Protocol. Such is the momentum, global investment in renewable energy like wind and solar power has outstripped investment in traditional power generation in recent years.
More than 100 nations now have policies supporting renewable energy, which can be described as an indirect carbon price. Carbon taxes and direct prices are already legislated in the economies of the EU, North America and New Zealand and cover about 567 million people. As Climate Commissioner Dr Rodger Beale pointed out recently, 900 million people will be covered when schemes in China, Japan and South Korea start in 2015. Australia is at no risk of going it alone.
For the first time in the history of the international negotiations, Australia can speak with authority and join other nations in taking credible action.
The challenge now is to use the upsurge in global action to strengthen current agreements in every new round of negotiation and eventually form a treaty to boost global ambition to the greater levels needed to confront the enormous risk of dangerous climate change.
*Erwin Jackson, deputy CEO of The Climate Institute, has been tracking international climate talks since 1990 and is attending UN climate talks in Durban