Australia wants its own global climate agreement without a binding promise of cuts

Australia wants its own international compact on climate action without a binding promise of cutting greenhouse gases

Australia’s reluctance at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos seems to have surprised environmentalists.

At a meeting of greenhouse gas emissions reduction leaders last Thursday, Australia’s environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, sat front row. He never spoke to the seven other nations comprising the Climate Action 100+ group.

Pete Earley, the former director of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef authority, who gave a closed-door lecture in January, said Frydenberg “seemed to be only at the side of the room when the environmental debate was being discussed”.

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In 2014, Australia’s federal government had decided to abandon the Kyoto protocol, the international standard of an emissions reduction target. In so doing, it broke an international promise made in 1997, just after Australia signed the Kyoto protocol. The world’s biggest emitters committed to cutting emissions by 5% below 1990 levels.

Australia now doesn’t have any international emissions reductions targets, but it did sign the Copenhagen accord and made a commitment to release a national greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

Australia wants to re-establish itself as an environmental superpower with its own global compacts on climate action. But such compacts will be difficult to agree on, because without a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, there will be no reductions.

The federal environment minister does not appear to want that commitment, and has made that clear through a series of public statements and conversations with other G20 countries.

These statements include Frydenberg’s claim, when he was still environment minister, that Australia wanted to pick and choose which emissions reductions targets it accepted – as long as they are fully funded.

At the same time, that minister has made it clear Australia isn’t going to sign a binding international climate agreement any time soon, and he doesn’t want any targets in return.

It’s not for want of trying.

At a recent meeting in Canberra, which was attended by the United States ambassador to Australia, John Berry, the Australian delegation tabled a copy of an offer of multiple voluntary obligations at a G20 conference. At the table were the vice-president of the US, Mike Pence, the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the environment minister.

The offer, if Australia were to accept it, would have been a historic one: the signatories would have made a solemn commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5C, and to creating a legally binding agreement at a special G20 summit in the late 2020s.

It’s highly unlikely that Frydenberg believes his country is capable of imposing such a legally binding agreement with the support of only the US and China, and without the rest of the world, including Australia.

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The Trump administration’s energy policy seems to be confirmed in its energy plan published last week. The plan says that for coal to be saved it will require government policies to grant more tax credits and give miners more tax breaks. Coal has some uses, but the global climate situation was such that it cannot be used for them. There is no reason, beyond political commitment, to believe the promises for deeper cuts in emissions made by those coalminers will be kept.

Even during the 45th US presidential campaign, Donald Trump denounced the Kyoto protocol and its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 15% of their 1990 levels, as a “bad deal”. Now, just two months after assuming the presidency, his administration appears to have abandoned even that tiny commitment of cuts.

When talking about the US administration’s renegotiation of an agreement, Frydenberg replied in December that he was “pleased to see the US president has reiterated his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord”.

Trump will probably withdraw from the agreement well before the US’s current 2020 target of a 26% reduction in emissions is due to expire. But if Australia wants to ensure that does not happen, its government needs to be prepared to commit to an ambitious, legally binding and global agreement.

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