Australia’s UN report card: making progress, could do better on inequality and climate

John Thwaites, Monash University

Visiting drought-affected farmland in NSW last week, new PM Scott Morrison said he was not interested in considering the role of climate change on the drought because he was “practically interested in the policies that will address what is going on here, right now.”

A narrow focus on the short term is common in politics, but it won’t make the long-term problems go away. Drought and other issues like inequality, housing affordability, obesity and the loss of Australia’s rich natural heritage will only get worse.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted by Australia and all nations in 2015 are a way to help countries focus on these longer-term challenges. They are a set of goals and targets for economic prosperity, social justice and environmental sustainability to be met by 2030.

In addition to governments, more and more businesses are now reporting on their progress towards these global goals, too.

How is Australia going?

This week, the National Sustainable Development Council with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute published the Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report. It examines trends between 2000 and 2015 to assess whether Australia is on track to meet the 2030 targets.

The report highlights strong progress in health and education, but poor performance in addressing inequality, climate change and housing affordability. Of 144 indicators assessed across the 17 goals, 35% were on track, 41% needed improvement and 24% were off-track or deteriorating.

Read more:
Australia falls further in rankings on progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goals

Despite some progress, the report found almost every goal has at least one target where an important indicator is off-track or will require a breakthrough to be achieved.

For example, income poverty in Australia has decreased since 2000. But a person on Newstart, who would have been near the poverty line in 2000, is now 25% below the poverty line due to the lower indexation rate for Newstart payments.

Life expectancy in Australia is among the highest in the world and has increased from 79.3 to 82.5 years between 2000 and 2015. Smoking rates and road traffic deaths have fallen dramatically, as well. However, Australia still has a high prevalence of lifestyle-related risks, such as obesity, and deaths due to road accidents in remote areas remain five times higher than in cities.

On the positive side, Australia is an increasingly educated society. The proportion of the working age (25-64) population holding tertiary qualifications increased markedly from 27.5% to 43.7% between 2000 and 2015, one of the highest percentage of tertiary qualifications in the world.

While Australian student performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) benchmark has been declining across science, maths and reading, Australian students perform very well as collaborative problem solvers – an increasingly important indicator for the jobs of the future. On the downside, investment in early childhood education and care remains low.

The report also highlights key challenges in achieving Australia’s economic goals, with relatively low investment in research and innovation, increasing underemployment and high levels of household debt.

While Australia has enjoyed a record period of economic growth and disposable incomes per capita grew strongly from 2000-2012, wage growth has stalled since then and cost of living pressures are now putting a strain on families.

Not there yet

Two persistent challenges identified in the report are continuing inequality and Australia’s poor performance on climate action and the environment.

Despite strong economic growth since 2000, Australia’s income inequality did not improve and wealth inequality got worse.

The glass ceiling remains firmly in place and structural inequalities continue to prevent women from reaching their potential. In 2017, just 11 women led ASX200 companies, while only 30% of Australian parliamentarians are female .

Read more:
UN delivers strong rebuke to Australian government on women’s rights

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap has barely narrowed in 20 years and women’s superannuation balances at retirement remain 42% below those of men. And the Closing the Gap report illustrates the vast inequality gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Of all the UN Sustainable Development Goals goals, taking urgent action to combat climate change is the area where Australia is most off track.

Greenhouse gas emissions, the highest per capita in the OECD, are roughly the same now as in 2000 and are projected to be even higher in 2030. We are nowhere near meeting even Australia’s modest Paris target of a 26% emissions reduction by 2030.

Are we ready for the future?

It is clear that Australia has a considerable way to go to achieve most of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and it will require a major change from business as usual.

Despite our history of strong economic growth, our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are unless we address inequality, climate change and cost of living pressures.

In an increasingly polarised political and media landscape, we should be looking to strengthen collaboration between government, business, social enterprise and society. To achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we need to overcome the short-term focus that currently dominates our political landscape and work collectively if we are to achieve a “fair go” for the next generation.

This article is the first in a series looking at Australia’s progress toward meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, based on a report published by the Monash University Sustainable Development Institute.The Conversation

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

Australia falls further in rankings on progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goals

John Thwaites, Monash University and Tahl Kestin, Monash University

Australia is performing worse than most other advanced countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the global SDG Index, which compares different nations’ performance on the goals.

According to the SDG Index, released yesterday in New York, Australia is ranked 37th in the world – down from 26th last year, and behind most other wealthy countries including New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The best-performing countries are the northern European nations of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Germany, all of which have a history of balancing economic, social and environmental issues.

The SDG Index measures progress against the 17 SDGs agreed by all countries at the United Nations in 2015. The goals encompass a set of 169 targets to be met by 2030 to achieve economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Yet despite the progress made by some countries, all nations still have a way to go to achieve all of the goals.

Read more:
Explainer: the world’s new sustainable development goals

Australia: the world’s worst on climate action

The latest SDG Index shows that Australia is performing relatively well in areas such health and wellbeing, and providing good-quality education. But its results for the environmental goals and climate change are among the worst in the OECD group of advanced nations.

The new index ranks Australia as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action (SDG 13). The measure takes into account greenhouse gas emissions within Australia; emissions embodied in the goods we consume; climate change vulnerability; and exported emissions from fossil fuel shipments to other countries.

One of the reasons why Australia has slumped so far in the rankings is that the SDG Index is now taking into account the so-called “spillover” effects that countries have on other nations’ ability to meet the SDGs. These effects may be positive, such as providing development aid; or negative, such as importing or exporting products that create pollution.

The report shows that G20 nations account for the largest negative economic, environmental, and security spillover effects. Despite being among the richest nations in the world, the US, the UK and Australia are rated worst in the G20 for negative spillovers.

The UK, for instance, rates particularly badly on the tax haven score, which makes it harder for other countries to raise the tax revenue needed to provide health, education and other services to their citizens.

This year’s SDG Index also includes a key environmental spillover indicator: carbon dioxide emissions embodied in fossil fuel exports, calculated using a three-year average of coal, gas and oil exports.

Australia’s annual exported CO₂ emissions are a colossal 44 tonnes per person. This outstrips even Saudi Arabia (35.5 tonnes per person), and is orders of magnitude larger than the figure for the US (710kg per person).

G20 leading the way?

With all countries still falling short of achieving the SDGs, the SDG Index also assesses what actions G20 governments are taking to help close this gap. Most G20 countries have begun to implement the goals but there are large variations among G20 countries in how the SDGs are being embraced by political leaders and translated into action.

Composite score of national coordination and implementation mechanisms for the SDGs in G20 countries.
SDSN and Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018 SDG Index and Dashboards Report

Brazil, Mexico and Italy have taken the most significant steps among G20 countries to achieve the goals, illustrated for instance by the existence of SDG strategies, coordination units in governments, or online platforms. India and Germany have at least partially already undertaken an assessment of investment needs.

According to this assessment, Australia has taken some initial steps to support SDG implementation. Supportive actions taken by the government include setting up a cross-departmental committee, co-chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to coordinate Government SDG activities. The Senate has established an inquiry to examine the opportunities to implement the goals.

Significantly, the federal government has also prepared a Voluntary National Review report on progress in implementing the goals, which it will present to the UN’s High Level Political Forum next week. The report addresses how Australia is performing against each of the goals and includes many case studies of implementation from business, civil society, academia, youth and all levels of government. It is accompanied by a new Australian SDG case study hub. Many of these activities occurred after the cut-off period for the SDG Index, so Australia’s overall performance on SDG implementation is actually higher than the SDG Index gives it credit.

However, Australia is not taking more deliberative action to address the SDGs, such as developing a national implementation plan or setting aside funding for SDG implementation. Nor are individual departments identifying the gaps in Australia’s SDG performance and identifying what they plan to do differently to address them.

The ConversationGiven Australia’s poor performance on some of the SDGs there is clearly a need for targeted action if we are to achieve the goals by the 2030 deadline.

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University and Tahl Kestin, Sustainable Development Solutions Network Manager, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

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

The UN is slowly warming to the task of protecting World Heritage sites from climate change

Jon C. Day, James Cook University

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has issued its strongest decision yet about climate change, acknowledging the worldwide threat posed to many World Heritage properties.

The decision (see pages 26-27 here), set to be adopted today at the completion of the Committee’s annual meeting in Krakow, Poland, “expresses its utmost concern regarding the reported serious impacts from coral bleaching that have affected World Heritage properties in 2016-17 and that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change”.

It also urges the 193 signatory nations to the World Heritage Convention to undertake actions to address climate change under the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial temperatures.

This decision marks an important shift in the level of recognition by the Committee tasked with protecting World Heritage properties, apparently jolted by the devastating bleaching suffered by the majority of World Heritage coral reefs around the world.

In the past, the Committee has restricted its decisions to addressing localised threats such as water pollution and overfishing, choosing to leave the responsibility to address global climate change to other parts of the United Nations.

In the preamble to its latest decision, the Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are “no longer sufficient” to save the world’s threatened coral reefs.

But while this is an encouraging progression, some members of the Committee are still struggling to come to terms with addressing the global impacts of climate change. This is despite the impacts becoming more pronounced on other World Heritage properties, including glaciers, rainforests, oceanic islands, and sites showing the loss of key species.

The World Heritage-listed glacial landscape around Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps.
Steinmann/Wikimedia Commons

The ‘jewels’ of marine world heritage

Last month, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre released the first global scientific assessment of the impact of climate change on all 29 World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are “the jewels in the World Heritage crown”.

The report paints a dire picture, with all but three World Heritage coral reefs exhibiting bleaching over the past three years. Iconic sites like the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Northwest Hawaiian islands (United States), the Lagoons of New Caledonia (France), and Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles) have all suffered their worst bleaching on record.

The most widely reported damage was the unprecedented bleaching suffered by the Great Barrier Reef in 2016-17, which killed around 50% of its corals.

The scientific report predicts that without large reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 reefs will “cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century”.

Reefs can take 10-20 years to recover from bleaching. If our current emissions trajectory continues, within the next two decades, 25 out of the 29 World Heritage reefs will suffer severe heat stress twice a decade. This effectively means they will be unable to recover.

It should also be noted that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are far better managed than other reefs around the world, so the implications of climate change for coral reefs globally are much worse.

All coral reefs are important

Almost one-third of the world’s marine fish species rely on coral reefs for some part of their life cycle. There are also 6 million people who fish on reefs in 99 countries and territories worldwide. This equates to about a quarter of the world’s small-scale fishers relying directly on coral reefs.

Half of all coral reef fishers globally are in Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific Island nations also have high proportions of reef fishers within their populations. In total, more than 400 million people in the poorest developing countries worldwide live within 100km of coral reefs. The majority of them depend directly on reefs for their food and livelihoods.

Coral reefs provide more value than any other ecosystem on Earth. They protect coastal communities from flooding and erosion, sustain fishing and tourism businesses, and host a stunning array of marine life. Their social, cultural and economic value has been estimated at US$1 trillion globally.

Recent projections indicate that climate-related loss of reef ecosystem services will total more than US$500 billion per year by 2100. The greatest impacts will be felt by the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on reefs.

Where else?

Recognising that the majority of the World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change is a good start. However, the Committee cannot afford to wait until similar levels of adverse impacts are evident at other natural and cultural heritage sites across the world.

The World Heritage Committee and other influential bodies must continue to acknowledge that climate change has already affected a wide range of World Heritage values through climate-related impacts such as species migrations, loss of biodiversity, glacial melting, sea-level rise, increases in extreme weather events, greater frequency of wildfires, and increased coastal erosion. To help understand the magnitude of the problem, the Committee has asked the World Heritage Centre and the international advisory bodies “to further study the current and potential impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties”, and report back in 2018.

The ConversationTwo of the key foundations of the World Heritage Convention are to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage, and to pass that heritage on to future generations. For our sake, and the sake of future generations, let’s hope we can do both.

Jon C. Day, PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

Great Barrier Reef needs far more help than Australia claims in its latest report to UNESCO

Jon C. Day, James Cook University; Alana Grech, James Cook University, and Jon Brodie, James Cook University

At first glance, the progress reports on the Great Barrier Reef released last week by the Australian and Queensland governments might seem impressive.

The update on the Reef 2050 Plan suggests that 135 of the plan’s 151 actions are either complete or on track.

The Australian government’s apparent intention in releasing five recent reports is to reassure UNESCO that the Great Barrier Reef should not be listed as “World Heritage in Danger” (as the World Heritage Committee has previously threatened).

Sadly, behind the verbosity and colour of these reports, there is disappointingly little evidence of progress in the key areas needed to make a significant difference to a World Heritage Area that is in crisis.

Poor baseline

The government framework for protecting and managing the Reef from 2015 to 2050, the Reef 2050 Plan, has been widely criticised as failing to provide a sound basis for the necessary long-term protection of the Reef.

As well as providing a shaky basis to build effective actions, the Reef 2050 Plan has few measurable or realistic targets. It is therefore not easy to report on the actual progress.

Several of the actions that will have the greatest impacts on the overall health of the Reef are shown in the progress reports as “not yet due”. In some cases, such as climate change, the Reef 2050 Plan is silent, instead simply referencing Australia’s national efforts on climate change.

Instead, the plan is to “[improve] the Reef’s resilience to climate change by reducing local pressures”. Besides addressing water quality, there are many things that should also be considered but they involve making some really hard decisions, such as choosing between coal and coral.

Progress versus reality

The overview of progress claims that 135 of the 151 actions in the Reef 2050 Plan are either completed (dark green) or are on track for their expected milestones (light green), as shown below.

Reef 2050 Plan: Update on Progress, 2016, CC BY

The reality, however, is that many of the 103 of the actions described as “on track/underway” have not progressed as initially proposed when the Reef 2050 Plan was submitted to UNESCO, and that the definition of “underway” is far too loose to be meaningful.

Our rapid assessment of the status of actions indicates that the level of progress reported for at least 32 of these 151 actions (around 21%) has been overstated. The following are just some examples:

The unfortunate truth is that neither UNESCO nor the IUCN has the time or resources to conduct their own comprehensive assessment of the Great Barrier Reef. They rely heavily on these reports when deliberating on what to recommend to the World Heritage Committee, including whether the Reef should be placed on the World Heritage in Danger list.

Our rapid assessment indicates there are real concerns with relying on the government to self-report accurately. It would appear the only way that UNESCO will receive an accurate update is if that assessment is done independently of government. Fortunately, UNESCO and IUCN do consider other evidence.

It is also concerning that the members of the government’s Independent Expert Panel and the Reef 2050 Advisory Committee were not involved in making the final assessments for the 2016 update report.

Despite pronouncements that the Great Barrier Reef remains healthy, the evidence of the 2015 Water Quality Report Card, along with numerous expert opinions (for example, Jon Brodie on water quality; Terry Hughes on coral health; the Queensland government on scallops; and the Marine Park Authority on inshore dolphins) shows that the real situation is not as rosy as UNESCO and the Australian public are being told.

Some real progress, but not enough

It is important to recognise some progress is being made – but sadly too little and not enough to reverse the declining trend for many of the values for which the Reef was listed as World Heritage.

We should also question some of the priorities in the Reef 2050 Plan given the widely acknowledged critical issues (see page 252 in the government’s 2014 Outlook Report). Adopting best practice for water quality from point sources such as sewage discharge (action WQA11 under the plan) and protecting habitat for coastal dolphins (BA12) should be immediately addressed.

Whether we have the money to do what’s necessary is another question. The government’s pledge to spend A$2 billion over 10 years is the current collective yearly spending (A$200 million) of four federal agencies, six state agencies and several major research programs, extrapolated over the coming decade.

While the level of funding is significant compared with many other World Heritage areas, the amount and priorities must be questioned, given that many of the Reef’s values are continuing to decline.

So far most funding has been spent on addressing water quality, and while this has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends.

As Jon Brodie recently wrote on The Conversation:

The best estimate is that meeting water quality targets by 2025 will cost A$8.2 billion … If we assume that … A$4 billion is needed over the next five years, the amounts mentioned in the progress report (perhaps A$500-600 million at most) are … totally inadequate.

More action needed

The Reef is unquestionably of global significance. Given its sheer size and location, no other World Heritage Area on the planet includes such biodiversity.

The worst-known bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef demonstrates the limitations of the Reef 2050 Plan, which is silent on the impact of greenhouse emissions from Queensland’s coal mines and the effects of climate change more generally.

Governments have an obligation to protect all the Reef’s values for future generations. To do this they must recognise growing global moves to address climate change, and the widespread national and international expectations that more needs to be done to protect the Reef.

Australia is a relatively rich country and has the technical capability to address the issues. This provides an opportunity to show some global leadership for managing such a significant part of the world’s heritage.

Listing the reef as World Heritage in Danger won’t in itself fix the problems – but it will certainly focus the spotlight on the issues.

As the World Heritage Committee prepares for its next meeting in July 2017, and considers once again whether to officially list the reef as in danger, it will need to study all the evidence, not just the government’s reports.

Certainly the true picture is more complicated and dire than the most recent government reports imply.

The Conversation

Jon C. Day, PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

Great Barrier Reef report to UN shows the poor progress on water quality

Jon Brodie, James Cook University

The Australian and Queensland governments have delivered their progress report to the UN on the Reef 2050 Plan to ensure the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

The report focuses on water quality, and managing pollution runoff, but only deals in a superficial way with the other preeminent issue for the reef – climate change.

It shows recent progress on water quality has been slow, and ultimately we will not meet water quality targets without major further investments.


The progress report claims some success in managing water quality through improved practices in sugarcane cultivation under the SmartCane program, and in rangeland grazing.

But actual reductions in sediment and nutrients loads to the reef over the last two years have been very small, as shown in the Reef Report Card 2015. This contrasts with the first five years of Reef Plan (2008-2013) where there was modest progress, as you can see below.

Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015

The positive news out of the Report Card was that grain cropping and non-banana horticulture were doing well, but these are the industries we have little robust data on.

And there’s been little progress towards adequate management practices in sugarcane and rangeland grazing as well as gully remediation in the large dry tropics catchments of the Burdekin, Fitzroy and Normanby.

The specific actions and funding promised in this area over the next five years mentioned in the progress report which have some real substance are:

  1. Direct a further A$110 million of Reef Trust funding towards projects to improve water

  2. Bring forward the review of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and set new scientifically based pollutant load targets

  3. Invest A$33 million of Queensland government funding into two major integrated projects

  4. Better prioritise of water quality as a major theme in Reef 2050 Plan.

What we need to do

However these fall far short of the real requirements to meet water quality targets on the reef, set out in the Reef 2050 Plan and the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

The best estimate is that meeting water quality targets by 2025 will cost A$8.2 billion. Other estimates suggest we’ll need at least A$5-10 billion over the next ten years.

If we assume that about A$4 billion is needed over the next five years, the amounts mentioned in the progress report (perhaps A$500-600 million at most) are obviously totally inadequate.

There is thus almost no chance the targets will be reached at the nominated time.

This reality has been clearly acknowledged by Dr David Wachenfeld, the Director of Reef Recovery at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In fact the current progress towards the targets is so poor that we will not even get close.

The actions actually needed to manage water quality for the Great Barrier Reef are well known and have been published in the Queensland Science Taskforce Report
and scientific papers.

The most important of these are:

  1. Allocate sufficient funding (A$4 billion over the next five years)

  2. Use the legislative powers already available to the Australian government under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act (1975) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) to regulate agriculture and other activities in the reef’s water catchment

  3. Examine seriously the need for land use change in the reef catchment. For example, we may need to look at shifting away from more intensive forms of land use such as cropping, which produce more pollutants per hectare, to less intensive activities such as beef grazing, forestry or conservation uses

  4. Continue to improve land management in sugarcane, beef grazing and horticulture but acknowledge the need to extend these programs. We also need better practices in urban and coastal development

  5. Critically examine the economics and environmental consequences of the further expansion of intensive agriculture in the reef’s catchment as promoted under the Australian government’s Northern Australian Development Plan

Progress on water quality management for the Great Barrier Reef, as clearly reported in the 2015 Report Card is poor. There is little chance we will reach the water quality targets in the next ten years, without upping our game.

The Conversation

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

Fairness on the agenda as UN begins job of strengthening the Paris climate deal

Hugh Breakey, Griffith University

The dust has long settled from December’s Paris climate summit, which hammered out the first truly global deal to reduce emissions. But the negotiations ended with widespread acknowledgement that the deal needs significant strengthening if its overall goal of keeping warming well below 2℃ is to be met.

The Paris Agreement therefore requires countries to ramp up their efforts significantly over the coming years and decades.

That job arguably begins today, with the opening of an 11-day meeting in Bonn, Germany, featuring the first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA).

The APA functions rather like a much more modest version of the Paris conference. Parties to the Paris Agreement send delegations, and small groups can be tasked with resolving specific issues before reporting back to the larger group for decision-making.

Among the most important items on the meeting’s agenda is the Global Stocktake to assess overall progress towards fulfilling the Paris Agreement’s goals. This stocktake will kickstart the process of five-yearly reviews to strengthen the Paris Agreement, the first of which will happen in 2023.

A new approach

The Paris Agreement sets down a new model for confronting global warming. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed emissions targets on each country in a “top-down” way, the Paris process allowed countries to pledge their own climate targets.

This approach has been credited for the Paris negotiations’ success, in contrast with previous talks which descended into recriminations over the burden that each country should bear.

But one obvious weakness of the new model is that the countries’ voluntary commitments will not deliver anything like the necessary emissions reductions to prevent dangerous warming.

The five-yearly review mechanism thus aims to ensure that nations ramp up their commitments in coming years.

The question of fairness

As the Paris regime’s core review mechanism, the Global Stocktake will consider many aspects of the parties’ collective progress. While it will focus mainly on practical and scientific issues, the Paris Agreement also requires it to assess the collective progress “in the light of equity”.

In international climate negotiations, “equity” refers to an array of moral principles developed by the parties since 1992. These principles flesh out ethical priorities, such as ensuring the sustainable development of poorer countries.

They also inform burden-sharing decisions – for example, requiring countries that are more able to fight climate change, or that bear greater historical responsibility for it, to shoulder more of the burden.

As such, those five short words – “in the light of equity” – are arguably the first ever attempt to formalise the idea of countries doing their fair share when considering their contribution to the global fight against climate change.

What will the meeting achieve?

It is too early to know exactly how the APA will implement its mandate. However, in order to cover equity appropriately, the stocktake will need to include an official consideration of how well each country’s climate efforts accord with the Paris goals and principles. This means considering two key questions:

  • Is each country doing what it promised?

  • Is it promising enough?

This is not what normally happens when parties discuss ethics and fairness. Because the climate negotiations have had no principled system of moral evaluation and deliberation, countries can make implausible and inconsistent ethical claims as they defend climate targets that were actually chosen on the basis of national self-interest.

In the ideal case, the stocktake will encourage countries’ delegates to talk in a reasonable and structured way about the ethical principles that inform their national climate targets. It will hopefully prompt them to be clearer about what principles they think are important, and how those principles justify their contribution.

As well as encouraging laggards to lift their game, the stocktake could clarify the application of specific equity principles. This could lead to improved overall ambition, more fairness in burden-sharing, and a greater shared belief in the regime’s legitimacy. Indeed, the process leading up to the stocktake can itself realise important procedural values, such as inclusiveness, reciprocity and deliberation.

In time, the process may prove to be an essential part of a functioning Paris regime.

What could possibly go wrong?

Opening up an official space for moral appraisals offers perils as well as promises. We must bear in mind that the Kyoto model failed precisely because it proved impossible to get consensus on questions of burden-sharing. An equity-based review might just reignite these past disagreements.

Indeed, any appeal to ethics carries some risks. Sometimes it’s better to speak of collective risk reduction rather than taking an adversarial position of preaching, lecturing or blaming others.

Despite these dangers, the Paris model desperately needs a principled mechanism for reviewing national climate targets so as to scale up the overall level of ambition to what’s needed globally.

The task is not impossible. The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows that, with clear structures and strong leadership, constructive international moral deliberation is possible.

Crucially, the stocktake will not need to take a single authoritative position on what equity requires. It can still drive improved ambition even if it allows coutries substantial flexibility in how they understand and apply equity principles.

While 2023 may seem a long way off, if the APA wants to ensure a constructive process, it will need to start laying the groundwork soon. It can start engaging states on equity issues in small meetings at the upcoming annual climate summits, starting with this year’s talks in Marrakech, or more formally at the Facilitative Dialogue scheduled for 2018.

After all, any assessment of this type does its best work long before it happens. In signalling that an ethical reckoning is on the horizon, it can encourage countries to start seriously considering whether their current commitments are fair, and what they could do better.

The Conversation

Hugh Breakey, Moral philosopher, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University

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

Timeline: UN climate negotiations

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

1988 marked the first mainstream call for climate action from scientists. It’s been a bumpy ride over nearly 30 years to the upcoming UN climate summit in Paris.

To navigate the timeline below, hover your mouse on the right and click on the arrow to move forward (and on the left to move back).

The Conversation

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

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

New UN rules put the spotlight on climate laggards to lift their game

Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

In the lead-up to the major United Nations climate summit in Paris later this year, Australia has announced plans to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

According to a variety of experts, the target range puts Australia towards the back of the pack based on our wealth and emissions per person. By 2030 we’ll still have the highest emissions per person among comparable economies. Australia’s announcement has already attracted international criticism.

Analysts have long argued that making upfront, transparent pledges can limit the temptation for countries to free ride on the back of other nations’ efforts.

Most countries announced their climate pledges for 2020 in the months after the 2009 Copenhagen summit. This time around, the UN has called on countries to announce their post-2020 pledges (called “intended nationally determined contributions”, or INDCs) before the Paris summit.

Calling on countries to put their cards on the table seems like a good way of encouraging fair play in Paris. But will the promise of greater transparency have the desired outcome, particularly if the UN lacks the legal clout to coerce laggard countries to lift their game?

Transparency and talks

Back in 2009, countries had considerable leeway in how they framed their 2020 pledges. This was a departure from the more uniform rules that wealthy countries adopted for the previous round of 2008-2012 targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The freer brief was the price the world paid for bringing a much larger and more diverse group of developing economies, such as China and India, into the tent.

When Australia submitted its 2020 pledge to the UN’s overarching climate body (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC), it consisted of a one-line undertaking with a six-line footnote.

Australia pledged to cut emissions by 5% relative to 2000 levels, rising to 15% or 25% if the world agreed to a more ambitious global deal. The statement didn’t give any details of why this should be considered a fair pledge, nor was Australia formally required to.

To their credit, Australia’s climate diplomats were among those who have since called for a more transparent, structured approach.

Fast-forward to the UN talks in Lima last year, where countries agreed on guidelines for their post-2020 contributions.

For the first time, each country is encouraged to explain how its contribution is “fair and ambitious”.

Important gaps remain on what countries need to disclose, including on emissions from land use – an area where existing rules have worked to Australia’s benefit – and on the use of emissions trading. Countries can still choose a base year that makes their target look more impressive. But overall, nations need to set out considerably more detail than for their Copenhagen pledges.

In another innovation introduced in 2014, nations have to publish answers to questions from other countries on their 2020 targets. Earlier this year, Australia faced a grilling from the United States, China and others on its target and the Direct Action policy that has been put in place to deliver it.

Holding fairness claims up to the light

Australia has duly submitted to the UNFCCC a three-page outline detailing its intentions, arguing that its target is not just “fair” and “ambitious”, but “serious” and “responsible” to boot.

In the light of the expert analysis mentioned at this article’s outset, we may well dispute this choice of adjectives. In which case, doesn’t such a process just give countries a licence to issue unfair targets under cover of the rhetoric of fairness?

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the process. Even if countries are inclined to see fairness in terms of what suits their national interests, the spotlight is on them to explain why their targets are fair. Of the 26 or so INDCs submitted so far, most have given some explanation.

Once these explanations see the light of day, it is easier to subject them to public scrutiny, debate and analysis. As I argued in a recent working paper, even if countries can’t agree on a single formula for what’s fair, it may be possible to agree on what kinds of arguments don’t hold water.

Why, for example, should Australia’s target be weaker given its “current energy infrastructure” (read: ageing coal-fired plants such as Hazelwood)? After all, we’ve had plenty of time – not to mention sunshine – to shift to renewable energy sources and could still do so now at a low cost to the nation’s wealthy economy.

Can transparency make a difference?

Even with these transparency measures in place, the government has supplied scant detail on what steps it will take at home to meet its current targets.

But without international scrutiny, would Australia have aimed even lower? Given changes in the global economy since Copenhagen, it’s hard to say. Still, most countries, including Australia, have picked up the pace of their emissions reductions for the post-2020 period, even if they still fall well short of what’s needed to avoid dangerous temperature rise.

The UN could still do much more to boost transparency, not least by a robust assessment of countries’ targets against widely cited criteria of fairness such as wealth and emissions per person, and by closing down reporting loopholes.

But crucially, upfront pledging and greater clarity may step up international pressure on countries that are seen to be dragging the chain. Not only is the inadequacy of Australia’s target now in the global spotlight, but it’s also abundantly clear to other countries that the existing domestic policies underpinning that target aren’t up to the task.

Assuming that the government sticks with its current level of effort between now and the Paris meeting, Australia’s target will remain a fig leaf that gives it just enough modesty to stay at the negotiating table.

But that much exposure comes at a growing reputational cost. Australia’s fig leaf is increasingly likely to wilt once rolling UN reviews of contributions kick in.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Tony Abbott may not care that much about how the world views Australia on climate change. But some of his cabinet colleagues, including potential leadership contenders, clearly do. So does a majority of the Australian public.

Transparency isn’t a failsafe recipe for unblocking progress on climate change. But it can strengthen the hand of those whose views are backed by scientific evidence and by reasons that can withstand the harsh light of day.

The Conversation

Jonathan Pickering is Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at University of Canberra.

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