After previously declaring it would not contribute to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced yesterday that Australia would (after all) contribute $200 million over four years. This money will come out of Australia’s recently diminished aid budget and is therefore not “new and additional” to the government’s supposed Millennium Goals commitment to provide 0.7% of gross national income towards overseas development assistance. It also compares unfavourably to the Labor government’s contribution of $500 million to “fast start” climate finance in 2012.

Nonetheless, it is a welcome announcement that prevented Australia’s climate reputation from hitting rock bottom. It will keep Australia on the Green Climate Fund Board. The announcement was also cunningly timed. Australia’s modest contribution of $200 million was the final one that brought the fund over the much desired $10 billion mark (on top of, for example, Japan’s US$1.5 billion). Thank you, Australia, for providing the last straw.

The climate finance contributions announced by Australia and other countries at the Lima conference are merely part of an ongoing collective effort by developed countries to raise at least $100 billion by 2020 to help poorer countries pursue decarbonisation and adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. These are the countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change and expected to suffer the most from harmful impacts.

Meanwhile, Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb have been engaged in bilaterals with other parties, including the United States and China, explaining Australia’s position.

Today, Bishop announced this position publicly in another — albeit very short — statement in the plenary session. She declared that Australia supported a strong and effective treaty but it must not hamper economic growth. She also announced that Australia wanted the Paris agreement to move beyond the rigid binary between developed and developing countries towards a more level playing field. Predictably, she defended the government’s Direct Action plan and declared that Australia had an ambitious 2020 target and that its actions were comparable with those other developed countries.

Most delegates and observers at the negotiations would beg to differ. Indeed, Germanwatch’s Climate Performance Index of 2014 ranked Australia 57th out of 58 OECD countries (Canada was 58, Denmark headed the list at No. 4, and no countries were awarded first, second or third place). At the time of writing, Australia also tops the league ladder of Climate Action Network’s daily “Fossil of the Day” award by a long stretch.

In her plenary appearance, Bishop also announced that Australia had established a prime ministerial taskforce to prepare Australia’s “nationally determined contribution” towards the collective mitigation effort for the post-2020 period. This will be made known by mid-2015, bucking the expectation that they be provided no later than first quarter of 2015.

It is clear that the main focus of this taskforce will be on what Australia’s trading partners are doing rather than on the science of climate change, the recommendations of the Climate Change Authority or what might be a fair contribution for a rich country that is making a major contribution to the problem of climate change.

Enter Robb, who had already declared yesterday that Australia would not sign up to a new climate agreement in Paris if it would put Australia at a disadvantage to its trade competitors.

More fundamentally, Australia has questioned the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, which is included in the draft negotiating text of the new agreement. Indeed, Bishop made it clear yesterday that she was nonplussed as to why anyone would want a fossil fuel-free world by 2050.

In short, Australia sees climate leadership as a sucker’s game and climate laggardship as the smart way to operate because it believes that fossil fuels are here to stay. These are very unsafe assumptions that risk not only Australia’s international reputation but also its long-term prosperity. If only Australia would look over the horizon and see what is coming: either dangerous climate change, for which we are poorly prepared, or a world that will become increasingly disinclined to buy our fossil fuel exports, which will leave us economically stranded.

Meanwhile, all eyes are tracking the draft COP decision proposed by the co-chairs, which will be worked over by ministers over the next two to three days to produce the final decision of the conference. The much longer draft negotiating text of the Paris agreement will remain a work in progress until it is finalised at COP21 in Paris at the end of 2015. However, it is hoped that the ministers will find ways of narrowing the differences in the negotiating text, particularly over the major sticking points of differentiated responsibilities, and the legal form in which the party’s “intended nationally determined contributions” are expressed.

However, there is one thing about which there is deep agreement among most of the negotiators, and that is the remarkably soothing effects of a Peruvian cocktail called a pisco sour, which is available in the corridors. Let’s hope it brings the negotiators together in the final hour.

Peter Fray

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