It’s a pity that neither Prime Minister Tony Abbott nor any of his ministers are travelling to Poland for the UN's annual climate change negotiations, which begin in Warsaw today. If Abbott would like to meet his doppelganger on climate change policy, this would have been the perfect occasion. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has achieved on a continental scale what Abbott has only succeeded so far in Australia. Tusk has proudly vetoed any move to increase ambition on renewable energy and emission reduction, and helped ensure that the EU carbon price has become next-to-useless. Abbott should be thankful, because it helped give him the oxygen for the "great big tax" campaign against Australia’s carbon price. Poland, like Australia, is heavily reliant on coal. Tusk and his junior coalition partner, the Peasants Party, are suspicious of anything that might upset the primacy of this commodity -- including carbon policies, wind and solar farms, and anything else the coal industry might consider "dangerous". Such is Poland’s reputation that this meeting -- the 19th Conference of the Parties, which runs for two weeks and assembles the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- has been dubbed the "Coal COP". These UN talks are being held in the National Stadium and are all about setting the "rules of the game" -- to finally achieve an effective global agreement by the time this climate caravan arrives in Paris in 2015. The worst outcome from Poland would be a repeat of the first match played in this stadium; a 0-0 draw. There is little time to act. Growth in global emissions is slowing, but the amount of carbon is still rising and it must peak before 2020. And, as the UN knows from its experience in Copenhagen, the details of a post-2020 agreement cannot be left to the last moment. So it wants the main agreements to be resolved at an upcoming leaders' summit, and many of the details to be sorted at the next COP in Lima, Peru. That would leave 2015 to dot the i's and cross the t's, so that Paris should be like the finish of the Tour de France, a ceremonial victory lap up and down the Champs-Elysees. There are reasons for renewed hope in these talks -- the recent release of the IPCC's fifth report, the decisive action being taken by China and the US to impose strict environmental regulations on coal, and a general realisation that this is probably the last throw of the dice to meet the target of limiting warming to 2 degrees C. And this is why the actions of the Abbott government will be influential. Nick Robins, an economist from HSBC Bank, says the only negative development since last year’s UN climate meeting in Doha has been the Australian government’s decision to roll back its carbon price. Australia marks the start of the UN summit by not sending a minister, instead making sure he stays at home to introduce a carbon repeal bill as the first order of business in the new Parliament (this is scheduled for Wednesday).
"[There is] a general realisation that this is probably the last throw of the dice to meet the target of limiting warming to 2 degrees C."Australia also plays a central role in the talks as lead spokes-country for the Umbrella Group, a key negotiating bloc that includes the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Norway. The first five countries have announced they are leaving Kyoto -- a decision that causes grief among developing countries. Australia’s move on this will be key. Australia is also a key member of the Cartagena Dialogue, a loose coalition of "sensible countries" and a broker between the negotiating extremes. Australia’s recent efforts, including throwing insults at the head of the UNFCCC chief over her linking of bushfires and climate change, and the climate science musings of Abbott’s inner coterie, have not yet disqualified it from membership. Climate campaigners say Australia has usually "punched above its weight" and been relatively constructive, no matter which party has been in power. How the current team, led by diplomat Justin Lee, performs in the absence of any minister or parliamentary secretary (for the first time in 16 years) and with the domestic rhetoric of the new government, will be fascinating. Here are some key tests:
- Will Australia reaffirm its commitment to a range of emissions reduction targets from 5-25%? Given the general verdict that Direct Action would struggle to reach a 5% target, and the blithe dismissal of the Climate Change Authority’s insistence on a higher target, this is not guaranteed. Indeed, given the Abbott government's refusal to entertain "any new taxes", it may be unlikely.
- The UN wants countries to deliver their pledges by the end of 2014. These would include signals that Australia would move beyond the 5-25% range. But the Abbott government has said it will not budge until 2015, possibly because any greater commitment would beg the question: how?
- Australia's commitment to climate finance for developing countries; recent cuts to Australia's aid budget do not bode well.