After Biden’s win, Australia needs to step up and recommit to this vital UN climate change fund


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.

Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.




Read more:
Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement in 77 days. Then Australia will really feel the heat


But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.

Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.

Australia’s initial commitment to the Green Climate Fund

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.

In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.

Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Vice-President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Abbott government joined the fund in 2014.
The Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:

it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.

Australia steps back

Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.




Read more:
Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.

Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:

I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.

The cast has changed – will the script say the same?

Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.

Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?

There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.




Read more:
Australia is lagging on climate action and inequality, but the pandemic offers a chance to do better


However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.

After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.

Global momentum on climate action

Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.

In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.

Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.

While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.




Read more:
China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge


In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.

This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.

And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.

The COVID-19 wild card

While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.

But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.

Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.

Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.




Read more:
New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


The Conversation


Jonathan Pickering, Assistant Professor, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement in 77 days. Then Australia will really feel the heat


Christian Downie, Australian National University

When the US formally left the Paris climate agreement, Joe Biden tweeted that “in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it”.

The US announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement back in 2017. But the agreement’s complex rules meant formal notification could only be sent to the United Nations last year, followed by a 12-month notice period — hence the long wait.

While diplomacy via Twitter looks here to stay, global climate politics is about to be upended — and the impacts will be felt at home in Australia if Biden delivers on his plans.

Biden’s position on climate change

Under a Biden administration, the US will have the most progressive position on climate change in the nation’s history. Biden has already laid out a US$2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, a commitment to rejoin the Paris agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

As Biden said back in July when he announced the plan:

If I have the honour of being elected president, we’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity, meet this moment in history.

And his plan is historic. It aims to achieve a power sector that’s free from carbon pollution by 2035 — in a country with the largest reserves of coal on the planet.

Biden also aims to revitalise the US auto industry and become a leader in electric vehicles, and to upgrade four million buildings and two million homes over four years to meet new energy efficiency standards.

Can he do it under a divided Congress?

While the votes are still being counted — as they should (can any Australian believe we actually need to say this?) — it seems likely the Democrats will control the presidency and the House, but not the Senate.

This means Biden will be able to re-join the Paris agreement, which does not require Senate ratification. But any attempt to legislate a carbon price will be blocked in the Senate, as it was when then-President Barack Obama introduced the Waxman-Markey bill in 2010.

In any case, there’s no reason to think a carbon price is a silver bullet, given the window to act on climate change is closing fast.




Read more:
New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


What’s needed are ambitious targets and mandates for the power sector, transport sector and manufacturing sector, backed up with billions in government investment.

Fortunately, this is precisely what Biden is promising to do. And he can do it without the Senate by using the executive powers of the US government to implement a raft of new regulatory measures.

Take the transport sector as an example. His plan aims to set “ambitious fuel economy standards” for cars, set a goal that all American-built buses be zero emissions by 2030, and use public money to build half a million electric vehicle charging stations. Most of these actions can be put in place through regulations that don’t require congressional approval.

And with Trump out of the White House, California will be free to achieve its target that all new cars be zero emissions by 2035, which the Trump administration had impeded.

If that sounds far-fetched, given Australia is the only OECD country that still doesn’t have fuel efficiency standards for cars, keep in mind China promised to do the same thing as California last week.

What does this mean for Australia?

For the last four years, the Trump administration has been a boon for successive Australian governments as they have torn up climate policies and failed to implement new ones.

Rather than witnessing our principal ally rebuke us on home soil, as Obama did at the University of Queensland in 2014, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has instead benefited from a cosy relationship with a US president who regularly dismisses decades of climate science, as he does medical science. And people are dying as a result.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

For Australia, the ambitious climate policies of a Biden administration means in every international negotiation our diplomats turn up to, climate change will not only be top of the agenda, but we will likely face constant criticism.

Indeed, fireside chats in the White House will come with new expectations that Australia significantly increases its ambitions under the Paris agreement. Committing to a net zero emissions target will be just the first.

The real kicker, however, will be Biden’s trade agenda, which supports carbon tariffs on imports that produce considerable carbon pollution. The US is still Australia’s third-largest trading partner after China and Japan — who, by the way, have just announced net zero emissions targets themselves.

Should the US start hitting Australian goods with a carbon fee at the border, you can bet Australian business won’t be happy, and Morrison may begin to re-think his domestic climate calculus.

And what political science tells us is if international pressure doesn’t shift a country’s position on climate change, domestic pressure certainly will.




Read more:
Under Biden, the US would no longer be a climate pariah – and that leaves Scott Morrison exposed


With Biden now in the White House, it’s not just global climate politics that will be turned on its head. Australia’s failure to implement a serious domestic climate and energy policy could have profound costs.

Costs, mind you, that are easily avoidable if Australia acts on climate change, and does so now.The Conversation

Christian Downie, Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Under Biden, the US would no longer be a climate pariah – and that leaves Scott Morrison exposed



Andrew Harnik/AP

Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is campaigning on a platform that puts climate action front and centre. At the Democratic National Convention last week, he outlined a US$2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, a commitment to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

This contrasts starkly with the agenda of President Donald Trump, which has involved rolling back climate regulations and plans for a US withdrawal from the Paris deal.

Clearly, a Biden election win would bring a climate policy sea change in the US – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter and a key player in any international agreement.

The Trump presidency has been a godsend for an Australian government apparently uninterested in significant climate action. But with Trump behind in the polls, a Biden presidency would further expose the Morrison government’s lack of climate ambition – a position that was already fast becoming indefensible.

Donald Trump addressing supporters.
US President Donald Trump signalled the US’ intention to exit the Paris Agreement.
Steve Helber/AP

Climate policy: Australia in the world

In international terms, Australia’s emissions reduction commitments are clearly at the lower level of ambition.

It’s pledged a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, and plans to “carry over” carbon credits earned during the Kyoto protocol period to substantially reduce the emissions reduction task under Paris. Even given this modest goal, and the emissions slowdown during the pandemic, it’s still not certain Australia will meet its target.

But unlike the US, at least Australia can point to its continued commitment to the Paris Agreement itself. And the Morrison government’s claim that Australia’s emission reduction will have little global impact is easier to make when a major emitter is refusing to take substantive climate action.




Read more:
Carbon dioxide levels over Australia rose even after COVID-19 forced global emissions down. Here’s why


But that state of play will change under a Biden presidency. Importantly, the new administration will likely use its re-entry to the global climate action “tent” to push other countries to increase their ambition.

This would put pressure on Australia ahead of COP26 – the next round of United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, in November 2021. The central focus of these talks – postponed from 2020 – will be new national commitments on emissions reduction.

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, countries have to ratchet up their commitments every five years. So far, there is no indication Australia will comply but ahead of the next COP, host nation the UK will be among a group of nations pushing the Morrison government to go harder. Under Biden, the US would likely join the chorus.

Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament
Scott Morrison is a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Pressure from all directions

Even without a Biden presidency, other forces are making Australia’s climate position less tenable.

Pressure from Australia’s near neighbours has been significant. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum, the Morrison government was roundly chastised for its climate inaction – an issue central to the concerns of Pacific island states. Indeed, it seems clear Australia’s climate policy is undermining the Morrison government’s so-called Pacific step up, making effective engagement with the region much more challenging.




Read more:
Australia’s farmers want more climate action – and they’re starting in their own (huge) backyards


At home, the devastating effects of the last bushfire season brought Australian climate action into sharp focus. Under climate change, natural disasters such as bushfires will become more frequent and severe.

In 2019, Australians identified climate change as the biggest threat to our vital national interests. The 2020 Lowy Poll saw a slight decline in concern for climate change as the effects of the coronavirus took hold, but support for strong action was still well above 50%.

The National Farmers Federation, historically a relatively conservative voice on climate policy, last week called for Australia to commit to the same target as Biden – net-zero emissions by 2050.

Cows lined up against a fence
The National Farmers Federation wants Australia’s economy to transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Shutterstock

This target is also a feature of the federal opposition’s position on climate policy, together with a 40% emissions reduction by 2030. Current Labor infighting over the policy after its 2019 election loss casts some doubt on that commitment. But the party’s climate change spokesman Mark Butler, and others in Labor pushing Australia to do more, will surely be empowered by the dynamics noted above.

If the case for emissions reduction needed strengthening further, a Greenpeace report released on Monday, reviewed by scientists, found pollution from Australia’s 22 coal-fired power stations is responsible for 800 premature deaths each year.

Added to this, research has found more coal power generation closed than opened around the world this year. And the International Energy Agency says renewable electricity may be the only energy source to withstand the COVID-19 demand shock.

Combined with the falling cost of renewables technology, the Morrison government’s dogged support for the fossil fuel industry is increasingly unjustifiable.

No silver bullet

A Biden presidency won’t be a silver bullet for Australian climate policy. The Morrison government has shown itself willing to shrug off international condemnation and view climate action primarily through the lens of mining exports and electricity prices. And for that, they’ve arguably been rewarded at the ballot box.

But domestic and international pressure for Australia to do more is increasing. A Biden election victory would certainly make it that bit harder for Australia to keep its head stuck in the sand.




Read more:
Australia’s farmers want more climate action – and they’re starting in their own (huge) backyards


The Conversation


Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.