Here in Madrid, the view of Australia's tricky tactics is not pretty

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Here at the 25th UN climate conference in Madrid, Australia’s plan to use leftover Kyoto credits is seen as an attempt to conceal that the government is not trying to meet the Paris target. We could do so much better.

The government expects national emissions in 2030 to be 16 per cent lower than in 2005, the headline Paris target is a 26 per cent reduction. The actual target is framed as an aggregate reduction during the 2020s, nevertheless a large gap remains. This is to be filled with "carry-over credits" from the Kyoto Protocol, the climate treaty that preceded the Paris Agreement.

Whether the Paris rules will allow the use of Kyoto credits is under negotiation right now. A ban is proposed as an option in the latest negotiating text, but it seems unlikely to come through. The Australian government has too much riding on it, and UN decisions are by consensus.

We are the only country planning to “carry over”. Almost all countries that care are opposed to it. It reminds the world of the “Australia clause” which the Howard government pushed through at the 1997 Kyoto summit, allowing Australia to count land-use change reductions. It is what created the Kyoto carry-over credits in the first place.

The Australian delegation will insist on "carry-over" and this will come at a diplomatic cost. Australia will need to ask a favour from almost all other nations in a forum where the nation now has little to offer, and which the Prime Minister disparaged in recent speeches. It may affect bilateral relationships more broadly. It has come up in the free trade agreement negotiations with the European Union.

The reason is that many of our trading partners take seriously the warning by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the Madrid conference: "We need a rapid and deep change in the way we do business, how we generate power, how we build cities, how we move, and how we feed the world. If we don’t urgently change our way of life, we jeopardise life itself."

The expectation is that the 2030 targets will be strengthened, not watered down. Australia should pledge to meet the Paris target without Kyoto credits, or greatly increase the ambition of Australia’s target. It would be best to do both.

This is possible with pragmatic policies for electricity, transport, buildings and agriculture. Helping the transition from coal power to renewables along will see continued reductions in electricity sector emissions. Facilitating the shift to electric vehicles will cut emissions and improve urban air quality. Building energy efficiency can be improved. Cleaner and more efficient technologies can be used in industry and agriculture. Marginal grazing lands can be planted to increase carbon stocks.

Actually cutting emissions would help position Australia to succeed economically in the future low-emissions world economy. There is a grand vision of Australia as a large-scale zero emissions energy exporter based on our renewables advantage, but this will work only if we are seen as a constructive player on climate.

The Madrid talks also present an opportunity to create an international approach that allows countries to work together to cut emissions, and to share the credit.

The main game at the Madrid climate talks is to agree rules for international trading of emissions reductions, while avoiding double-counting. The Paris Agreement also allows government-to-government initiatives. Australia should help elaborate and then implement a system for sharing the credit for bilateral initiatives to cut emissions. Japan’s "joint crediting mechanism" can be a model.

Obvious opportunities are for Australia to help with more effective forest management, for example in Indonesia, PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomons. Throughout the Pacific, there are opportunities to replace diesel-based electricity generation with renewable energy systems. Australian funding, on top of existing aid, could help make it happen. The resulting emissions reductions could be shared between our neighbours and Australia.

It could help heal relationships with Pacific countries, following the debacle over climate change at the Pacific Islands Forum. Combined with meaningful action to cut emissions at home, it would signal that Australian ingenuity can be used to address climate change, not just for creative accounting.

As the developed country most affected by climate change, it is in our interest to lead by example, not to be seen as a recalcitrant.

Written by Frank Jotzo, a professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. He is representing the ANU as an observer at the UN climate conference. This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Updated:  30 May 2020/Responsible Officer:  Director, Energy Change Institute/Page Contact:  Webmaster