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Australia shamed as climate reaches turning point


Opening of the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC. Poznan, Poland, Dec. 1, 2008, Flickr image by Oxfam InternationalEnvironment delegates are meeting for two weeks (1–12 December) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poznan. With a large accompanying NGO and youth presence, this Polish city is hosting 11,000 visitors for a preparatory meeting for the next major UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009, tasked to negotiate a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Treaty, which expires in 2012.

Poznan seeks agreement on a 'vision' and concrete agenda for Copenhagen. Environmentalists had hoped Poznan would see announcements by major Western nations of aspirational numerical targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The European Union showed early leadership by committing to reduce its emissions by at least 20 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020.

The Bush-administration US delegation, which wouldn't quantify targets, is ignored. But Obama's name is everywhere. He pledged last month to set the US on course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020, and reduce them an additional 80 per cent by 2050. He sent an inspiring message to the Poznan meeting:

'Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences are too serious.'

So the heat is off the US. Meanwhile, Australia, Canada, Japan and Russia are still refusing to put national numerical GGE targets on the table. As resources exporters and/or major coal users, they are reluctant to match the ambitious EU 2020 target. All are waiting to see what others say.

The influential Australian coal industry and supportive industry lobbies would prefer much lower targets for 2020. They appear to have prevailed. Marian Wilkinson reported on 1 December that Minister Wong had reversed her previous public commitment to announce Australia's 2020 target at Poznan.

Wilkinson reported predictions that on 15 December, Wong will announce a 2020 cut of between 5 and 15 per cent. Reaction from more than 50 climate groups in Australia was swiftly condemnatory.

In Poznan, South Africa has now named and shamed Australia, Russia, Canada and Japan for not declaring 2020 targets. China has called on developed countries to offer a 25 per cent cut.

These numbers matter internationally. By not supporting a the generous stance of developed countries at Poznan, Australia is making it less likely that developing countries led by China, India and Brazil will respond generously in Copenhagen.

Garnaut's Report explained cogently, in classic prisoner's dilemma game-theory analysis, why the developed West must make the first offers. Rudd and Wong seem to be ignoring his advice for domestic political reasons .

A more optimistic interpretation is that Rudd needs evidence of strength of international feeling at Poznan to convince opponents at home that a generous Australian 2020 target is needed. Maybe Australia will, in the end, come up with a 20 per cent offer. But such risky gamesmanship leaves all the heavy lifting at Poznan to the EU, which itself is having difficulty convincing its reluctant poorer East European members.

In true Howardian style, Australia is again, by sitting on the sidelines, sabotaging Poznan-Copenhagen's prospects of real-time progress.

Outside the conference, young NGO activists engage in imaginative street protests and climb coal power station chimneys. How long before their desperate last-ditch energy and enthusiasm for Poznan-Copenhagen curdles into desperation, perhaps even eco-terrorism, if real international progress is not made?

This meeting marks a turning point. At the now-advanced stage in global warming towards irreversible climate tipping points, not to decide is to decide. The protesters see that if rich governments continue to prevaricate, wasting precious time for amelioration and adaptation, these governments betray their responsibilities to the next generation. Our economic models just don't take proper account of our children's future environment.

Back home, Rudd and Wong walk a policy tightrope. They have managed to make the public temporarily forget global warming, hardly heard of in Australia since September, when Garnaut issued his final report and the economic crisis broke. Behind the scenes, pro-coal lobbies put ferocious pressure on our government to downgrade targets.

Minister Wong now goes to Europe for a high-level Poznan wrap-up meeting. I hope whatever she says there will be closely scrutinised. It is even more important, in the current economic crisis, that strong foundations be laid in Poznan and Copenhagen for the speediest possible decarbonisation of the world economy, if we are to be spared the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Our Federal Government hands out money and advises Australians to spend it, when instead it should be using that money to build solar and wind driven power stations, and to help Australians insulate their houses, install solar hot water and fuel cell technology and water tanks, re-learn the arts of self-reliance and living sustainably within one's means.

But this does not fit the government's consumption-driven growth model. Perhaps after a year of predicted recession, such ideas will start to be looked at more seriously by Australian governments.

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department.

Topic tags: tony kevin, poznan conference, climate change, barack obama, kevin rudd, penny wong, carbon emissions



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Existing comments

When are people going to get told the truth? Man cannot influence global temperature change! Global warming or cooling is totally a natural cyclical event. The science behind man-induced global warming is very bad science. All the models used to support this hypothesis are invalid as they do not take into account the two major influences of global temperature - the sun and clouds. Neither of these can be modeled. A little widely known fact is that the global temperature has dropped over the past 10 years and it has been at 0.1 degrees for each of the last 6 years.

Shane | 05 December 2008  

For scientific evidence and references relevant to climate change refer to: DANGEROUS CLIMATE CHANGE: LESSONS FROM THE RECENT HISTORY OF THE ATMOSPHERE

Andrew Glikson | 05 December 2008  

I am a sceptic that mankind is the principle determinant of climate. I am also sceptical that the carbon produced by Australia matters much in a global sense. I note that the carbon taxes are now devoted to carbon level modification and not climate change so perhaps the penny has dropped. By all means let us modify pollution but we need to balance our cost with the benefit actually achievable. The Government has now got the message and is balancing the level of talk and the level of taxation.

Ken Fuller | 05 December 2008  

Mr Fuller declares himself to be 'a sceptic that mankind is the principle determinant of climate'. He and fellow commentator Shane would do well to have a look at Andrew Glikson’s article here, and I commend William F Ruddiman's Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: how humans took control of climate, Princeton, 2005, to them.

I have been a little concerned at the Rudd government's attitude to climate change ever since climate change was excised from the Environment portfolio (which had to be given to Latham-like maddie Garrett for the sake of symbolism), and was instead entrusted to the safe hands of ALP Professional Wong; (I’d have used her title of Senator except that ALP Professional is the superior title).

David Arthur | 06 December 2008  

Ken Fuller notes that policies are directed to the modification of carbon level, which he classes as pollution. As a pollutant, carbon dioxide doesn't count. Its only danger is as a greenhouse gas. There are plenty of pollutants of concern, but anti-carbon strategies won't reduce them.

Michael Grounds | 06 December 2008  

I can't comprehend Mr Kevin's reference
to a Howardian stance. I thought Minister Wong was a member of the Rudd government!

Bill Barry | 09 December 2008  

PM Rudd's approach to climate change is realistic. There is nothing sinister in any government, especially of a middle-power, waiting to see what the US and China and others will do. It's also legitimate, in this climate, to think of the effects of Poznan on domestic employment.

David Webb | 11 December 2008  

Kevin's article expresses my fears that, contrary to all previous indications, Rudd is about to renege on doing what is necessary to show the world that Australia cares very much about saving our planet by taking concrete and effective measures to substantially reduce its carbon emissions which are among the heaviest in the world per capita. This is a critical area for the world where bold positive steps must be taken. The time for prevaricating, or manouvering for a bargaining position is past. We must act now to save the environment we depend on, and show the world that it can be done.

Tony santospirito | 14 December 2008