Australia is at risk of taking the wrong tack at the Glasgow climate talks, and slamming China is only part of it


Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityBuried within the prime minister’s response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is just about everything we’re at risk of getting wrong at the Glasgow climate talks in October.

After slamming China — whose emissions per person are half of Australia’s — for not doing more to cut emissions, Scott Morrison said the Glasgow talks were the “biggest multilateral global negotiation the world has ever known”.

If he treats the talks as just another (big) negotiation, we’re in trouble.

The way the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade usually treats negotiations is hold something back, hold out the prospect of “giving it up,” and then only make the concession if the other side gives something in return. Even if holding back damages Australia.

Cars are a case in point. From an economic point of view, there is no reason whatsoever to continue to impose tariffs (special taxes) on the import of cars — none, not even in the eyes of those who support the use of tariffs to protect Australian jobs. Australia no longer makes cars.

Yet the tariff remains, at 5%, making it perhaps A$1 billion harder than it should be for Australians to buy new cars (although nowhere near as hard as it was in the days when the tariff was 57.5%).

The tariff seems to be in place largely to give the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade something to negotiate away in trade agreements: for use as what the Productivity Commission calls “negotiating coin”.

Australia removed tariffs on cars from Korea but kept them in place more broadly.

Here’s how it worked in the 2014 Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Australia agreed to remove the remaining 5% tariff on Korean cars, “with consumers and businesses to benefit from downward pressure on import prices”.

But Australia didn’t remove the tariff on car imports altogether, which would have given us a much bigger benefit but denied the department negotiating coin.

The next year the department did it again, agreeing to give up the tariff on imported Japanese cars in the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (but not on other cars) so Australians could “benefit from lower prices and/or greater availability of Japanese products”.

Two years later, it did it again, with cars from China.

When the UK and European agreements are negotiated, it’ll do it there too.

Australia holds back reforms

Eventually Australians will get what they are entitled to. But the point is that rather than advancing the cause of free trade, the department has held back, treating a win for the other side as a loss for us, when it wasn’t.

The Centre for International Economics believes the much bigger earlier set of tariff cuts lifted the living standard of the average Australian family by A$8,448.

Had our trade negotiators been in charge, we would still be waiting. Instead the Hawke and then the Keating governments pushed through unilateral reductions, asking for nothing in return.

Read more:
This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know

As former Trade Minister Craig Emerson put it, this gave Australia “credibility in international trade negotiations way beyond the relative size of our economy”.

Does that sound like the sort of thing Australia might need at Glasgow, to have enough credibility to urge even bigger emitters to deliver the kind of cuts on which our futures and future temperatures depend?

It won’t work with China

The prime minister is right to say that China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, even though its emissions per person are low. Its high population means it accounts for 28% of all the greenhouse gases pumped out each year. The next biggest emitter, the United States, accounts for 15%

But China’s status is new. Until 2006 it pumped out less per year than the United States. Because the US has had mega-factories and heating and so on for so much longer, it is responsible for by far the biggest chunk of the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere: 25%, followed by the European Union with 22%.

China might reasonably feel that countries like the US that have done the most to create the problem should do the most to fix it.

Like Australia, the US pumps out twice as much per person as China and has much more room to cut back.

On the bright side, China knows that being big means it is in a position to make a difference to global emissions in a way that other countries cannot on their own. And that’s a position that can benefit its citizens.

China’s latest five-year plan, adopted in March, commits it to cut its “carbon intensity” (emissions per unit of GDP) by 18%. If it beats that five-year target by just a bit (and it has beaten its previous five-year targets) its emissions will turn down from 2025.

It is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2060.

Australia needs China’s help

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that Australia is especially susceptible to global warming. We’re facing less rain in winter, longer heatwaves, drier rivers, more arid soil and worse droughts.

We are right to want China to do more, but the worst way to achieve it is to say “we won’t lift our ambition until you lift yours”.

Hardly ever a worthwhile strategy, it is particularly ineffective when we don’t have bargaining power.

Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns

The only power we’ve got is to set an example, unilaterally, as we did with tariffs. And to ramp up our ambition.

If Australia said it would do more, and didn’t quibble, it might just count for something.

It’s all we can do, and it’s the very best we can do.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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


Bonn voyage: climate diplomats head into another round of talks

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Here we go again. For longer than some of us can remember and the rest of us care to, there have been annual climate change international conferences. From Geneva to Rio, via Kyoto and Copenhagen, the “breakthrough” in Paris and the Trump tsunami in Marrakech, the world’s climate diplomats now head to Bonn, where Monday marks the start of another fortnight-long summit.

Things tend to follow a fairly predictable playbook. In the weeks leading up to the summit, investigative journalists probe the vested fossil fuel interests. Think tanks publish predictions based on equal parts wishful thinking, cynicism and reading of chickens’ gizzards. They launch new networks whose names are sprinkled with words like “leadership”, “equity”, “justice” and “ambition”.

Then it all kicks off. The delegates fly in; the protesters usually travel by less carbon-intensive means. The media descend, looking for tragedy, farce and soundbites, and find all three.

The academics provide instant punditry, and Big Green groups try to outdo one another to come up with the best zinger in the aftermath. The all-time leader on that score is surely Greenpeace UK’s John Sauven who remarked after the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen meeting that the city was a “crime scene, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport”. Second place must go to eminent climate scientist James Hansen, who described the 2015 Paris accord as “a fraud”.

COP this

This year’s “Conference of the Parties” (COP) is happening in Bonn, Germany, (where the UN’s less-publicised “in between” climate meetings happen). But it is chaired by Fiji, which is not holding the meeting on its own (threatened) shores because of the logistical difficulty of hosting the tens of thousands of delegates.

Earlier this year Australia threw in A$6 million to help the Fijians with organisational costs.

But anyone who follows climate diplomacy knows that Australia has a chequered record at COP meetings, and hasn’t always been so generous when it comes to the negotiations themselves. So how has Australia fared at previous summits, and what’s on the table this time?

Climate history

The starting gun for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the November 1990 Second World Climate Conference. Australia initially pledged an ambitious greenhouse gas target of a 20% reduction by 2005. But by the time of the Rio Earth Summit two years later, the fossil fuel lobby had been so successful that the Australian fossil fuel lobby’s two top people didn’t bother to go, and neither did the new Prime Minister Paul Keating. Australia signed a weaker target.

By the time the first formal COP took place in 1995, Australian negotiators, at the behest of the Business Council of Australia and others, lobbied for special exemptions as a large, growing country with big coal exports. In the end, Australia grudgingly signed the Berlin Mandate, which called on developed countries to negotiate emissions reductions by the end of 1997. Perhaps Keating, facing an impending election, wasn’t willing to alienate green voters completely.

John Howard’s government had no such concerns. At its first COP, UK politician John Gummer accused Australia of putting coal exports to Japan ahead of Australia’s next generation, angrily saying:

They’ve given way to vested interest. They’ve given way to power. They’ve given way to people who have pretended, given way to people who fiddled the science.

Ahead of the 1997 Kyoto summit, Howard promised a mandatory renewable energy target (which finally came into existence four years later). At Kyoto, Australia got a very generous deal – an emissions “reduction” target that allowed emissions to actually rise by 8%, and a clause allowing land-clearing reductions to be counted towards the total.

But even that wasn’t enough to keep Australia in the tent. After US President George W. Bush pulled out of Kyoto, Howard followed suit. The two countries then set up various “spoiler” organisations, such as the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, while industry lobbyists from the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (the clue is in the name) were part of Australia’s official delegation.

Kevin Rudd later masterfully used Kyoto ratification as virtue signalling, and got a standing ovation at COP 13 in Bali in 2007, though it was his climate minister, Penny Wong, who won plaudits. Rudd invested a great deal of emotional and political capital in Copenhagen two years later, and after leaving the “crime scene” he was, by most accounts, extremely discombobulated.

The UN climate negotiation process – which was undergoing careful repair in the period 2010-12 so as to avoid failure in Paris – was not a priority for Julia Gillard, who had won a pyrrhic victory in introducing carbon pricing. For her, the very words “climate” and “carbon” became toxic, thanks to Tony Abbott and the Murdoch behemoth.

Business as usual

Once Tony Abbott took over, “normal” service fully resumed. No Australian minister went to COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013, with new environment minister Greg Hunt saying he was too busy trying to axe the carbon tax.

The following year, fresh from the government’s failure to keep climate change off the Brisbane G20 agenda, Julie Bishop was at COP 20 in Lima, chaperoned – to her reported displeasure – by trade minister Andrew Robb.

The Abbott government was accused of attempting to set the Paris talks up for failure by insisting on legally binding emissions targets – something it knew the United States in particular wouldn’t swallow.

Abbott agreed an unambitious 26-28% reduction target by 2030 for Australia (on a 2005 baseline, the same year we should have reduced emissions by 20% from 1988 levels). Of course, by the time the crucial Paris talks arrived, Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister.

Australia ratified its commitment just as Donald Trump, who has since committed to pulling the US out, became president.

Meanwhile, at COP 22 in Marrakech, Australia’s lead delegate defended fossil fuel companies, saying:

Some of the companies being alluded to as the polluters of policy, they will be, some of them, the providers of the biggest and best solutions … you could look at some of the statements coming out of ExxonMobil and Shell recently to underline that point.

A Bonn voyage for Australia?

At the Bonn talks, Australia will cop (sorry) some flak for its lack of reductions ambition, and action.

It will win its usual disproportionate share of those “fossil fool” awards so beloved of activists.

Ministers, chaperoned or not, will bang on about the Green Climate Fund, which Australia has been leading in 2017.

Cornered on coal, it may mutter about so-called HELE plants, as per the World Coal Association, or simply try to change the subject (look, a squirrel!).

Mostly, though, Australia’s delegates will hope that the heat is on the Trump Administration, while everyone wrangles over the (lack of) money for “loss and damage” and the finer details of a gender action plan.

The ConversationEveryone will be thinking ahead to the next COP, to be held in Katowice, Poland, where, it is said, some actually “important” decisions will be made. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide will carry on accumulating in our skies.

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

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

The Paris Agreement won’t stop coal, but future climate talks might

Luke Kemp, Australian National University

The global climate deal reached at the Paris climate talks has left a big question unanswered: what do to about coal? It isn’t even mentioned in the agreement text.

There is growing recognition that continued expansion of fossil fuels is incompatible with stopping dangerous climate change. If the international community wishes to limit global warming to a maximum of 2℃, only 886 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) can be emitted between 2000 and 2050. Locked in the ground is 2,795 billion tonnes, 65% of which is coal.

Given this simple maths, only one-fifth of these fossil fuels can be dug up. Most fossil fuel reserves cannot be used. Creating new coal mines or searching for new sources is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change. It is simply wasted investment.

This has provided the basis for the “no new coalmines” campaign. It is an idea that has gained traction around the world. So is it legally possible to undertake such a drastic international action?

Growing support

A global moratorium on new coal mines is rapidly gaining international support. The idea has even passed the lips of world leaders. On the summit’s opening day, Kiribati’s president Anote Tong told the assembled heads of state:

I have issued a call for a global moratorium on new investments on coal mines as endorsed by my fellow Pacific Leaders and I invite you all to join this call.

The climate talks have traditionally focused on tackling fossil fuel demand by attempting to limit countries’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the negotiations, restricting the supply of fossil fuels is becoming the centre of attention.

The divestment movement has experienced considerable success in persuading concerned citizens and institutions to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies. The Obama administration recently rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, partly on the rationale that it undercuts US climate leadership.

Political support is increasing rapidly and could soon reach a tipping point that leads to international legal action either through, or outside of, the UN climate negotiations.

Through the climate convention

While Paris will not deliver a global moratorium on new coal mines, or even a dialogue about it, it could still happen in the near future. There are climate conferences every year and each one adopts a set of new decisions.
Countries could decide in the future to develop further rules for the pledging process, including putting forward what national actions are being taken to limit fossil fuel extraction.

Another option would be simply to amend the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or the Paris agreement at a later date. For the UNFCCC this could be done by a three-quarter majority vote (although the changes would only apply to countries who vote for and ratify the amendment).

The UNFCCC’s subsidiary body for science and technology could also be empowered to make recommendations on fossil fuel extraction, given a 2℃ carbon budget. This body has looked at carbon budget issues previously and has reviewed the temperature target.

Looking at the implications of fossil fuel extraction would be a logical step forward, and well within the body’s abilities. This could provide the basis for recommendations to the wider negotiations on what reaching 2℃ means for coal. Spoiler: new coal reserves are not compatible with the 2℃ threshold.

A political problem

The UN is not the only game in town. Some of the most powerful international institutions, such as the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO), operate outside of the UN.

It’s feasible that a small group of countries could forge ahead to create their own semi-global agreement outside of the UN. This is not without precedence. The WTO was originally the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT) with only 34 members.

Such an agreement could involve a group of countries pledging to ban the creation or expansion of coal infrastructure within their own sovereign borders, and to encouraging others to do so. They could even create regulations to forbid the purchase of coal from specific sources (new coal mines), although this would probably face technical issues and be challenged as arbitrary discrimination under the WTO, as has previously happened for Venezuelan gas exports.

At the very least, an agreement could establish a ruling for governments to divest from projects or companies involved in the expansion and creation of coal mines, or of fossil fuels in general.

Such a move may seem fruitless given that it would be taken by a coalition of the willing and would probably not involve major coal exporters. But as pointed out above, agreements rarely stay frozen in time. If designed correctly they can grow in membership and influence.

A multi-country agreement on no new coal mines could help to create a powerful new international norm, and help to signal a market push away from new coal mines and coal in general.

Stopping the creation and expansion of coal mines is not a legal problem. Numerous legal avenues to implement a moratorium on new coal exist. It is a purely political problem.

The world appears to be awakening to the simple fact that limiting warming to 2℃ means we cannot use existing coal reserves, let alone seek out new ones. The question is who will act first: the UN climate talks, or a critical mass of willing countries?

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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

Take no prisoners: the Paris climate talks need to move beyond ‘fairness’

Luke Kemp, Australian National University

For years now the climate talks have revolved around discussions who should bear the burden of cutting emissions, particularly between developed and developing nations. Much of Paris climate summit will be focused on this notion of equity and how to ensure that each country does its their fair share in the fight against climate change.

Developed countries (known as “Annex 1” in the United Nations’ lingo) now typically have falling emissions, but are responsible for the majority of historical emissions. Developing nations (known as “non-Annex”) often have increasing emissions, but are responsible for far fewer historical emissions.

Based on this, developing countries have argued strongly for differentiation. For them this involves developed countries taking the lead on reducing emissions and providing finance and assistance for developing countries undertaking a low-carbon transformation. Developed countries argue that equity means all countries taking action and adopting targets together.

Most of the national pledges that have been submitted for the summit make some mention of why the pledge is “fair” or equitable. Even Oxfam has been in on the action releasing a Fair Shares equity review of national climate pledges.

But this concept of a fair share is a large reason why Paris is at risk of failing to deliver a worthwhile deal. We will not solve climate change until we stop seeing emissions reductions as a burden to be equally shared.

The burden of climate action?

The way we talk about issues creates a frame in our minds. It bundles up different ideas to create a shared perspective.

For climate change, talk of equity has inevitably framed emissions reductions as a burden which needs to be “fairly distributed”, or as a penalty to atone for past sins.

Nations also talk of “capacity”, or the ability to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. This of course depends on the state’s economy and politics. But it implies that reducing emissions comes at a high cost and is only worth undertaking if the right capacity is in place.

If there is one way to ensure that countries don’t act it is to frame mitigation as a burden. Luckily this just simply isn’t true. Reducing emissions, and mitigating climate change, is not a burden; it is one of our greatest opportunities.

The benefits of climate action

The economics of climate change has been slowly moving away from emphasising the costs towards recognising the benefits. This is not surprising given the history of environmental regulation.

Decreasing ozone-depleting substances was originally forecast by industry to have catastrophic economic costs. It ended up being extremely cheap.

Industry initially complained of the potential costs of the Clean Air Act in the United States. But the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the act saved the US economy US$2 trillion in avoided health and productivity losses by 2020. The estimated costs were just US$65 billion. The benefits were 30 times larger than the expected costs.

The same kinds of benefits are on offer when switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One US study calculated the health costs of coal-powered electricity to be 0.8-5.6 times greater than the value added to the US economy. Earlier this year the IMF estimated that when accounting for wider costs such as health, fossil fuels are subsidised globally by more than US$5 trillion per year. So even without accounting for climate change, in most cases fossil fuels cost more than they’re worth.

Renewable energy and climate mitigation has the edge over fossil fuels in most wider analyses.

The New Climate Economy Report provides an overview of compelling studies and examples showing why mitigating climate change would be good for economic growth and general human well-being.

Importantly mitigation is already cheap and getting cheaper every year. A report by Frank Jotzo and myself earlier this year showed how the different estimates of the cost of large emissions reductions in Australia range from 0.1-0.21% of annual GDP growth. Not exactly a big hit to the economy. And these are all still narrow analyses that don’t consider all of the co-benefits of mitigation.

Emissions reductions are not a burden to be handed out equally between countries. It is an opportunity that countries should be pursuing with or without an international deal. Talk of avoiding catastrophic climate change just strengthens an energy transformation which already makes economic and social sense.

Breaking out of the prisoner’s dilemma

Climate change has typically been seen as a prisoner’s dilemma: a game where two rationally behaving actors will avoid cooperation and produce an outcome which is not in their collective interests.

Climate change has been viewed as a prisoner’s dilemma because each country thinks that climate action benefits everyone, but costs the individual country. So countries push for everyone to participate in negotiations to share this cost. It is particularly clear in Paris where there have been repeated calls for an agreement that is “applicable to all” and excludes no-one.

But this is not true, and many countries are beginning to realise this.

Looking around the world, the greatest action being taken against climate change is not about altruism or in the name of equity. They are being done for economic gain and to create better lives for the public.

China is installing vast renewable energy capacity and moving towards limiting coal consumption due to concerns over air pollution, energy security benefits and to secure a head-start in the booming renewable energy market. Germany is undertaking its famed “Energiewende” in order to secure a market advantage in renewable energy and kick-start its economy.

Countries are taking action not for equity or morality, but for their own national interest.

Realising the benefits of mitigation changes the game of negotiations. No longer would we focus on getting everyone on board and distributing “fair-shares”. Instead the aim would be to find ways to maximise collective benefits and opportunities.

Of course least developed countries should receive financial and technological aid. But that is because assistance should be given for any kind of development, not because a low carbon transformation is prohibitively expensive. Fairness does become a bigger issue when talking about other issues such as adapting to climate change impacts, but it shouldn’t be the main focus for reducing emissions.

Climate change is not a prisoner’s dilemma. It is not about equitably sharing a burden. That is a myth. There really is no dilemma when climate action has so many benefits.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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

Paris climate talks could be a light in the darkness of terror

Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

With a country still in shock, and more than 200 innocent people either killed or receiving hospital care in Paris, it seems perverse to even turn one’s mind to what implications this horrific event might have for the international response to climate change.

The French hosts have been quick to confirm that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference starting in Paris next Monday will still go ahead. For it to be cancelled or postponed would have handed an apparent success to terror.

Yet the whole tone and context of the lead-up to the meeting has changed. It is likely that fewer people will attend. The security presence, already tight, will now be intense. Leaders of all the major economies are planning to be in Paris for the first half of the meeting. Their minds will be occupied, and the media will be asking them about more than climate change.

Already, with a full agenda coming to Paris after the G20 Antalya summit in Turkey, actually being in the city will pull leaders’ attention towards more immediate international security concerns.

How can more than 100 heads of state be in Paris and not make reference to the most grotesque terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings?

The London bombings and the G8

For me, this is all eerily reminiscent of the tense days at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. July 7, the day set aside for discussions on climate change, was sent into turmoil by the London bombings.

I was with then-British prime minister Tony Blair that morning as news of the attacks started coming in. First on Sky News, then a call from the Chief Executive of London Transport indicating that these were not crashes or engineering errors: this was catastrophic. The morning before, London had won the right to hold the Olympics in 2012; the morning after suicide bombers were wreaking havoc on innocent commuters.

While the G8 meeting continued without disruption, the prime minister flew back to London to help coordinate the response from Downing Street. That evening Blair returned to Gleneagles and continued chairing the meeting. It was a big day. I will never forget it.

Although the prime minister had to be in Whitehall that day, on his return many of the issues still open for what we envisaged would be a hard negotiation (on financing for African development and new low emissions technology development) had disappeared. Blair’s fellow leaders recognised the need for the G8 meeting to be, and be seen to be, a success for the international geopolitical order.

So, on July 8, in front of the world’s media, the Gleneagles communiqué on climate change and Africa was signed, very publicly, by all the G8 leaders coming up to the lectern in turn. It was a piece of high political theatre unprecedented at such meetings. A colleague of mine, having been tasked with finding a suitable fountain pen for eight rather powerful signatures, kept it.

Building momentum

A Conservative British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what was the most difficult thing about his job. “Events, dear boy, events,” was his alleged response.

No matter how much any leader might prepare and seek to spend time and political capital on his or her priorities, events cannot be ignored. Events, be they severe climate events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, or policy decisions such as China’s commitment that its emissions will peak in less than 15 years, or the G7 agreeing to phase out fuels by the end of the century, have drawn heads of state back to the issue.

Prior to Friday, the momentum behind reaching a more adequate international agreement on climate change was already significant.

States have presented their emissions reduction commitments prior to the meeting (through their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has also learnt important lessons from previous meetings.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all coming to Paris having committed themselves to significant and ambitious domestic climate policies. They aren’t coming to Paris to negotiate what might be achieved, they are focused on ensuring a supportive international policy environment that will assist the how: namely the effective implementation of what is committed to internationally and a process for supporting further policy ambition.

One perverse consequence of the horror of Friday night might be that it provides further incentive for demonstrated unity and agreement at the Paris climate change conference. With France, President Hollande and his highly able Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, presiding over the conference, the world community might now be more well disposed to helping achieve a clear, symbolic and positive success. Both for France, and as a potent demonstration of the enduring effectiveness of international diplomatic process.

Out of the darkness of last Friday night in Paris an ambitious and meaningful climate agreement might just provide some positive and enduring light.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

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

‘I fear we will see radicalisation’ if Paris climate talks flop, says chair of 2009 Copenhagen summit

Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

At the world’s last “blockbuster” climate summit, in Copenhagen in 2009, the person in the president’s chair was former EU climate commissioner and Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard. As someone who has led many important international efforts to reduce the risks of climate change but who also presided over what many felt was a frustrating result in Copenhagen, she has a unique perspective on the hype and hopes for December’s crunch climate summit in Paris.

The Sydney Democracy Network invited her to a discussion where she engaged with participants including the new chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, Emma Herd, Clean Energy Finance Corporation chair Jillian Broadbent and Climate Council chair Tim Flannery.

The result was some key insights into what to expect when world leaders converge on Paris. You can read the full transcript of the discussion here.

A global deal is not in the bag yet

The dynamics ahead of the Paris meeting are auspicious – but nothing is certain. Bear in mind that the dynamics before Copenhagen seemed just right too: Al Gore had raised public awareness; heads of state were engaged; reducing emissions was seen as more than a purely environmental problem; and the world had witnessed the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Australian drought and the 2003 European heatwave. Yet what emerged from Copenhagen was well short of an international treaty or an agreed set of rules committed to by all nations.

If there is one crucial positive difference this time around, it is the new assertive role of the world’s two largest economies, as Hedegaard explained:

I think that there are better chances, and there are also many lessons learned … we have China and the United States now playing ball. It means a lot … though we should not underestimate what will happen if developing countries and low-lying island states really start to question how sure they can be, for instance, that the United States under a new administration will actually deliver on its pledges.

As a veteran of these meetings, Hedegaard understands just how difficult reaching multilateral agreements can be:

… we should not underestimate that there are still many unresolved issues at the table. We saw at Copenhagen that you can have a lot of people who have an understanding among themselves, but then the summit opens and all sorts of parties suddenly have all sorts of claims. So let’s just say we aren’t home safe yet with Paris.

Rowley and Hedegaard.
Christopher Wright, Author provided

The outcome needs to be clearly communicated

Hedegaard stressed that the implications of any new climate agreement need to be rapidly and effectively communicated to the public, including details of the economic and employment benefits.

One thing that is different to the position before Copenhagen is how many people, including US President Barack Obama, are now framing the arguments for effective climate policy around the health and security benefits. Hedegaard said:

I understand in the United States, when they really started to calculate the health costs, that changed things.

There is a real challenge in calibrating public expectations. In retrospect, in 2009 they were so high and momentum apparently so strong that when the Copenhagen meeting achieved less than expected, the overwhelming sense was one of failure. Hedegaard clearly empathises with her French counterparts:

The French are absolutely fearful of having expectations set too high. The only problem is that it doesn’t work the other way round: if expectations are low then you are guaranteed limited success.

There is a danger that even if Paris achieves significant progress, a lazy media will focus solely on whether the outcome will keep global warming within the vital two-degree threshold, with the result that the summit will be reported as either outright success or unmitigated failure.

Here the lessons from 2009 are fresh in Hedegaard’s mind. Back then, when forced to respond to the “Climategate” accusations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not even employ a communications team. This time around, it should be different.

Criticism of Australia will be limited

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s public statements on coal and wind turbines, and his government’s efforts to undo policies designed to encourage low-emissions technologies, have led to predictions that Australia will be a pariah at the talks. But Hedegaard says Australia’s climate ambition is still difficult to assess.

It will be difficult for diplomats to know what to make of Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, when the policies and political will to deliver these reductions look questionable. But Hedegaard thought Australia would most likely get the benefit of the doubt:

I think the French inclination would be to say ‘thank you, Australia for finally doing something’. Because they know that without all developed countries delivering at least something, then there is less a chance of developing countries coming forward with anything.

The stakes are higher than ever

There is an enormous amount at stake; another failure wouldn’t simply be a case of going back to the drawing board. If it delivers another underwhelming result, questions will be asked about whether the UN negotiating progress can continue in the same way it has for the past 21 years.

Hedegaard says Paris doesn’t have to deliver some final, ultimate treaty, but:

…it does have to deliver tangible progress. If there is not tangible progress, there will still be lots of climate summits in the future but ministers will stop coming, the top people will not attend, the air will go out of it.

If Paris flopped, then you would see a very different kind of debate globally and in Europe … The risks are real and it’s not the case that if Paris fails then things will just continue with “business as usual” – our response could go backwards.

Hedegaard warned that perceived failure could lead to climate politics becoming deeply polarised:

I think Paris will probably deliver, but if it doesn’t, I fear that we will see a radicalisation. I see some citizens, young people, are getting impatient. Unless the world community comes up in Paris with a credible narrative about how we are changing track now, also with our economy and our finances, you will see sort of the old debate from the 1970s: anti-growth, anti-capitalism.

What some of us have being trying to do is to say, no, we should work with business, we should work with our societies as they are and try to get this transition done. Because if we don’t we will have an anti-growth dichotomy and then people will stand there screaming in each of their corners and not much will happen. So there is really a lot at stake in Paris.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

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