Since the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen summit, international negotiations on climate change have developed a bad name. Some commentators have given up on them. But look behind the scenes and these negotiations are making progress — and it’s imperative that Australia plays a constructive role at the next major summit in Qatar in December.

While Copenhagen wasn’t the success it could have been, media depictions of the summit as a total failure continue to overshadow the progress made there and at subsequent UN climate summits  in Mexico (2010) and South Africa (2011).

Claims aired this week that the lead US climate envoy, Todd Stern, is suggesting walking away from the commitment the US made to help limit global warming to less than 2 degrees oversimplifies the complex web of international climate change action. Yet Stern’s speech is not about the 2 degree goal, it is about how you structure an agreement to achieve it. You may not agree with all that Stern says, but he is correct that negotiations are inherently complex as they seek to integrate environmental, economic, security, trade and energy issues.

The failure to recognise the progress international processes have made has led some commentators to downplay multilateral co-ordination, and focus primarily on domestic action and informal international agreements to drive action on climate change. Some commentators advocate the traditionally hawkish view of international co-operation espoused by some US think tanks and political leaders such as George W. Bush.

The argument goes that negotiations have not produced a climate treaty and therefore the process needs to be abandoned as a waste of time. This ignores  the vital role of international negotiations in raising ambition to tackle global warming, and accountability. It also ignores the successes that international negotiations, not just treaties, have had, both in shaping countries’ actions and in supporting investment in clean energy.

In advance of Copenhagen, an unprecedented number of countries advanced pledges to act to reduce emissions. These were not just hollow words. All the major emerging economies are now implementing domestic policies to meet their commitments. South Korea’s emissions trading scheme is based on its international target. South Africa’s carbon tax and other policies are framed around meeting its pledges. China’s international pledge has been translated into domestic carbon and energy targets that it is setting for regional carbon trading schemes. Mexico’s recent climate laws are similar. The list goes on.

The basic structure and rules established by international agreements also influence the policies that governments implement. To take a single example, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol spurred a boom in clean energy investment.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, about two-thirds of investment in renewable energy in developing countries since 2004 has been supported by revenues from the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the UN scheme that facilitates largely private sector investment from advanced to developing economies for low-carbon projects. Estimates suggest that about 70-80% of renewable energy investment supported by the CDM would not have occurred without support from this Kyoto mechanism.

This is not to say that international agreements and their supporting infrastructure are perfect or the sole way forward. That’s not the case. Governments around the world are acting on climate change and clean energy because they see it is in their economic self-interest. But to say that international agreements over the past decade have not supported global action is wrong.

Agreements can give countries the confidence they need to commit to more ambitious emissions reduction targets by reducing perceptions that their economies could be disadvantaged by moving ahead of trade competitors. They’re also important because they build a foundation of trust and accountability between nations. The cycle is self-reinforcing in both directions: domestic actions support international agreements, because they demonstrate that countries are living up to their commitments and obligations.

I am not suggesting countries should not form regional or bilateral coalitions of ambitious action. These can be valuable complements to multilateral engagement and, as The Climate Institute has advocated, can be used to accelerate global ambition. However, abandoning multilateral engagement is not in Australia’s interest.

As a nation vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, coordinated global action matters a great deal to us. As an influential middle power, Australia has the ability to build coalitions in multilateral fora, which help us advance our interests against resistance from the major powers such as the US and China. In Mexico, Australia’s role as part of the coalition of progressive countries, the so-called “Cartagena Dialogue”, was central to the positive outcome from that meeting.

The opposite was true in South Africa, where Australia squandered the opportunity to join the “ambition coalition” of the EU and small island states (who are highly vulnerable to climate change). This group pushed through the agreement to finalise a new legally binding agreement covering all major economies by 2015.

Australia cannot afford to waste further opportunities. Failure to support current multilateral agreements by refusing to inscribe our current emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period at the next UNFCCC summit in Qatar in December would damage Australia’s international standing. At best this would limit our ability to influence the outcomes our nation wants in international forums — for example, an ambitious binding agreement that covers all major emitters.

At worst it could leave Australian businesses with major headaches in accessing the international carbon markets that are critical to the cost effectiveness of the domestic emission trading scheme.