It has taken just seven days, but already the reputation of Australia as a constructive force in international climate policy has been completely trashed — both in terms of its domestic actions and in the wrecking ball tactics it has sent to the UN’s annual climate summit in Poland.

The two-week summit is just over halfway through, and Australia is now seen as an “anti-climate” nation that is actively working against any consensus.

Australia has — many times over the 20-plus years of climate talks held by the UNFCCC — been seen as an outlier, courtesy of its huge reliance on coal, but its actions in Warsaw have come as a shock to negotiators who are dealing with familiar faces who had previously been constructive, if not progressive.

The most common refrain being posed to Australian representatives is: “What is going on down there?” Even a Bush-era US negotiator found Australia’s negotiating position extreme. Its opposition to a climate finance position paper prepared by other “climate fiscal conservatives” such as US, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada has dumbfounded participants.

Actually, what is going on is that Australia is simply taking its domestic sloganeering to the international stage, regardless of diplomatic sensitivities. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott told The Australian: “We are determined to say what we mean and do what we say, so we will never say one thing at an international conference and another thing at home.” He may be consistent, but he’s failing Diplomacy 101.

Abbott’s comments came as Australia made the unprecedented step of dissenting on the final communique at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, joining with Canada in refusing support for the UN-sponsored green climate fund, which he dubbed the “green capital fund”.

“There is no intention for Australia to be in any way constructive or really participate in these talks.”

In Warsaw, observers are simply aghast. The refusal to back the green climate fund (which has a similar function to our Clean Energy Finance Corporation, or even Abbott’s proposed emission reduction fund, apart from the spooky words green, climate and clean energy) is seen as a threat to these talks, because the fund is a crucial piece of common ground between developed and developing countries.

“There is no intention for Australia to be in any way constructive or really participate in these talks,” said Wendel Trio, European director of the Climate Action Network.

Australia seemed to be deliberately working against any agreement. “I think it is evident at these talks. I wonder if Australia would be really interested in joining a legal treaty in 2015.” A big test in coming days will come as Australia responds to a draft text to move the negotiations towards the proposed UN Paris agreement on climate in 2015.

The draft UN text includes commitments for the green climate fund, and urges countries to “significantly lift” ambition before 2020 and move to the top of their target ranges. Australia’s Climate Change Authority came to the same conclusion, one dismissed by Abbott, and it is not yet clear that Australia will indicate its support for that range when it makes its speech to the conference on Thursday.

Trio was speaking after an analysts group known as GermanWatch released its annual climate performance index, which shows that Australia now sits, along with Canada, as the worst performing industrial country in the world. Both countries get a resounding fail, and are only saved from last spot by Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia.

Australia’s position was already poor because of its high emissions levels and limp-wristed renewables policies, but the decision by the Abbott government to repeal the carbon tax and dismantle all climate and clean energy institutions and initiatives sent it down six places to number 57 of 61.

Yet this is taking place as researchers declared a “glimmer of hope” that global emissions could actually peak before 2020 — thanks mainly to the slowing down of emissions in developed countries, and decisive action taken by China to limit coal use.

The first three places in the index are declared vacant, because no country is acting strongly enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees C. Denmark ranks top, followed by the UK, Portugal and Sweden. Germany fell to 19th spot. China rose to 46th, just behind the US in 43rd.

The decision by Australia not to send a minister has frustrated negotiators, and the EU is bitterly angry about the decision to repeal the carbon price. Even the Chinese are nonplussed, having studied the Australian carbon price intensively before launching their own.

Australia, of course, is a coal nation — along with host nation Poland. (It should be noted that coal exports were not included in Australia’s ranking. Had they been, it may well fallen to last place). And coal is seeking to extend its influence by hosting a major summit at the Polish Ministry of Economy. The line being trotted out by the coal industry here is that ultra-efficient coal plants are a “low-emissions” solution.

But Dr Bert Metz, a former co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on climate change mitigation, said alternatives to fossil fuels are already available and affordable. UNFCCC executive director Christiana Figueres told the coal industry that it needed to “look past next quarter’s bottom line and see the next generation’s bottom line”. She told the World Coal Summit:

“The coal industry faces a business continuation risk that you cannot afford to ignore. Like any other industry, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your workforce and shareholders … And by now it is abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can only go ahead if they are compatible with the 2 degree Celsius limit.”

She suggested that the industry should close all existing subcritical plants, implement carbon capture and storage on all new plants, even the most efficient, and leave most existing coal reserves in the ground. All suggestions that the industry shows not the least sign of wanting to adopt.

* Giles Parkinson is in Poland for the climate summit. This story first ran on RenewEconomy.

Peter Fray

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