Australia to ratify the Paris climate deal, under a large Trump-shaped shadow

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Australia’s government has announced that it is to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which was struck 11 months ago and entered into force last Friday.

The move comes despite the election of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese-inspired hoax. Trump has pledged to turn his back on the Paris treaty after he takes office in January, although this would take at least a year and technically leave the Agreement still in force, albeit weakened.

The question for Australia is how Canberra will react to such a seismic shift in US climate policy. The last time a US president pulled the plug on international climate negotiations was in March 2001, when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty. Australia’s prime minister John Howard followed suit on Earth Day 2002.

The temptation for Australia’s current government would be to follow in Trump’s slipstream in much the same way. Despite its 2030 climate target being widely seen as unambitious, Australia still lacks a credible plan to deliver the necessary emissions cuts, and has no renewable energy target beyond 2020.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may be a vocal supporter of climate action, not everyone on on his side of politics is as keen – such as MPs Craig Kelly and George Christensen. (It was not always thus under the Liberals.)

The temptation to defect might be strong, but the countervailing pressure will be much stronger that it was in 2002, and the clean energy transition is already underway. Just this week, a high-powered group of business leaders, energy providers, academics and financiers called on Turnbull to expand the renewable energy target and create a market mechanism to phase out coal.

Yet the US election has also reinvigorated Australian opponents of climate action, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, who were cracking champagne at the prospect of Trump in the White House, and media commentator Andrew Bolt, who jubilantly described Trump’s victory as a “revolt against the left’s arrogance”.

Which bit of history will repeat?

On balance, then, it is still hard to predict Australia’s next move – and past form is little guide for future performance.

Over the past 26 years, Australia has made two largely symbolic commitments to international climate action, and one very concrete refusal.

In 1990, ahead of the 2nd World Climate Conference which fired the starting gun for the United Nations’ climate negotiations, the Hawke government announced a target of a 20% reduction by 2005.

The pledge, however, was laced with crucial caveats, like this one:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This target was sidelined in the final United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Australia signed and ratified in 1992.

In 1997, Australia got a very sweet deal at the Kyoto climate talks, successfully negotiating an 8% increase in greenhouse gases as its emissions “reduction” target, as well as a special loophole that allowed it take account of its large reduction in land clearing since 1990. Australia signed the deal in April 1998, but never ratified it.

Kyoto’s rules hid a multitude of sins, anyway, as Oxford University’s Nicholas Howarth and Andrew Foxall have pointed out:

…its accounting rules obscure the real level of carbon emissions and structural trends at the nation-state level… it has shifted focus away from Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter towards China, its primary customer.

Although Kevin Rudd famously ratified Kyoto and received a standing ovation at the Bali Climate summit in 2007, a stronger Australian emissions reduction target was not forthcoming.

The next big moment came at the Paris negotiations of 2015. Australia’s official pledge was a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 – a target unveiled by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, and which met with a lukewarm response from analysts.

Since then, pressure has been building for Australia to explain how it can meet even that target, given the hostility to renewable energy among the federal government, the lack of a post-2020 renewables target, and the inadequacy of the current Direct Action policy.

And now we are looking at the prospect of a Trump presidency, already described as “a turning point in the history of climate action” and “the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees”.

In a chaotic world that has confounded pollsters, it seems foolish to bet on anything. But two predictions seem sure: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will rise, and the future will be … interesting.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia is set to ratify the second part of Kyoto Protocol – but it’s not a done deal

Ben Parr, University of Melbourne

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pledge overnight in Paris that Australia will ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol is welcome news.

The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol commenced in 2008 and concluded in 2012. In November 2007, in his first act as prime minister, Kevin Rudd ratified this phase, committing Australia to an emissions target to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 8% above 1990 levels over the 2008-2012 period.

The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol covers the period 2013 to 2020. This was agreed to by the parties to the Kyoto Protocol, including Australia, at the United Nations climate talks in Doha in 2012.

Turnbull’s pledge commits Australia to a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2000 levels in the second phase.

Presently, 54 countries have submitted their instruments of acceptance to the second commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol. To enter into force however, three quarters of the nations to the Protocol will have to submit, which means 144 nations out of 192.

Australia’s pledge to ratify the second phase may encourage other countries to do the same. Alternatively, Australia’s low 2020 target, which some say is out-of-step with the rest of the world and the science of climate change, may simply further frustrate some developing countries. These countries are already very concerned that industrialised counties are continuing to side-step their leadership obligations under the existing UN climate regime.

Turnbull’s pledge comes as Australia’s new prime minister seeks to distinguish his government from his predecessor on this issue. This new tack is also consistent with Turnbull’s new positive message about opportunities and innovation, and with his previous position on climate as opposition leader in 2009.

This step means that the Turnbull government is locked into an emissions reduction target, but not the method of how to achieve it.

Not a done deal

Ultimately, Australia’s international policy position on climate change is determined by domestic politics.

In Australia’s political system ratifying international treaties, which includes the Kyoto Protocol Mark I and II, does not require any formal legislative approval. The final decision rests at a ministerial level, and ultimately the prime minister, with a keen eye to the mood of the party room.

Environment minister Greg Hunt said this morning that “Australia will ratify Kyoto II with the support of the cabinet and party room”. So it seems that this base is covered, for now. Indeed some in the Liberal party room are already warning against target increases.

The parliamentary oversight that does exist for treaties, for instance the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, is relatively weak, usually acting as a rubber stamp. So this aspect seems to be covered.

If Australia does ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, it is entirely possible that sometime between now and 2020 we will see a switch to an emissions trading scheme (ETS), which would of course require the passage of a new bill through both houses of parliament.

The Climate Change Authority’s second draft report of Australian climate policy released yesterday required the authority to consider whether an ETS would harm Australia’s international competitiveness. This may mean designing an ETS that allows liable polluting firms to import an unlimited number of cheap international carbon credits to meet their emissions caps, reducing the incentive to clean up domestic production processes. We saw this previously under the Rudd-Turnbull Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Other domestic constraints over national climate policies and Australia’s international negotiating positions may emerge externally from the Parliament, for example, from Australia’s fossil fuel lobby. However, public opinion, which is squarely behind strong action on climate change, may enable the government to propose stronger targets.

Obstacles abound before we get a clear picture of Australian climate policy moving forward.

The Conversation

Ben Parr, Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.