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In Copenhagen in 2009, Australia took a leadership role in the fight against climate change. Ten years on, at COP25, the winds have changed. By Karen Middleton.

Australia stalls on climate action

Australia’s Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, Angus Taylor, addresses COP25 in Madrid.
Credit: Twitter

Around the halls of the United Nations climate talks in Madrid, it was known as the “anti-Australia clause”.

Countries opposed to Australia’s preferred method of measuring greenhouse gas emissions reduction, so-called carryover credits, were attempting to insert a ban into the Madrid conference’s final statement.

It would have barred Australia from carrying over carbon credits, earned by exceeding unambitious previous targets, to justify less future effort.

In the end, the ban didn’t succeed.

And following the positions taken by Australia, Brazil, China, India and others on key issues up for negotiation, the international effort to secure the next stage of global action on climate change didn’t succeed either.

COP25, the 25th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ended in frustration and exhaustion in the Spanish capital last weekend, extended by two days in the hopes of reaching an agreement that never appeared.

A decade after the famously unsuccessful COP15 in Copenhagen dashed hopes in 2009, the Madrid meeting – which was shifted from the Chilean capital, Santiago, because of civil unrest – will be known for the same.

In Copenhagen, Australia was an advocate for the small island states, trying unsuccessfully to persuade big recalcitrants – primarily China – to agree to a road map for climate change mitigation beyond 2012.

In Madrid, it was seen as one of the recalcitrants, seeking what other countries argued were unacceptable concessions that could allow Australia to sidestep emissions reduction responsibilities.

Climate change specialist Richie Merzian was a government adviser at the time of the Copenhagen meeting and was in Madrid representing The Australia Institute think tank for COP25.

“In Copenhagen, Australia really was invested in trying to make it a success,” he says. “[In Madrid,] Australia had defined positions that were less constructive. In a narrow focus, they were potentially destructive … just really a self-interested, righteous way of doing less.”

Merzian says the issue of whether to allow two kinds of carryover credits and a mechanism that would allow a form of double counting “ate up a lot of oxygen in the room”.

“These issues – how you deal with past credit … are bundled into the whole discussion around how to make a new carbon market under the Paris agreement,” Merzian says.

“It had been negotiated for years. It was about time to land it and it’s quite important to land it. Next year is the time that countries are all encouraged to increase their targets and that lack of agreement on any aspect of the carbon market will impact the confidence of countries and businesses to be more ambitious.”

He says it was hard to watch Australia take the position it did.

“Your country is literally on fire because of climate change and your representatives are at the COP trying to water down the provisions for climate action,” Merzian says. “It’s kind of other-worldly.”

Suzanne Harter, a climate campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation, also attended the Madrid meeting.

“Australia was noted many times,” she says, “and never in a positive way.”

Harter says other countries were puzzled that Australia’s official delegates did not mention the bushfires, nor any climate link.

“People were looking at the news,” she says. “We could see the people in Sydney wearing face masks and ash washing up on the beaches.”

She criticised the Australian delegation for arguing it was more important to get the design of proposed international carbon markets right than to set ambitious targets for future emissions reduction. Scientists gave “briefing after briefing”, Harter says, but ministers and officials still could not agree.

“It was more than disappointing. People were in tears in the halls. I think a lot of people just felt sick.”

Harter does praise the Australian delegation for advocating to the UNFCCC organisers on behalf of protesters who were being threatened with expulsion.

Harter says the delegation also deserves credit for supporting the inclusion of text on indigenous and broader human rights in the meeting’s final statement – text that was ultimately omitted – and backing a five-year gender action plan.

She does, however, endorse Australia being awarded a notorious “fossil of the day” prize by the Climate Action Network for its stance on carryover credits.

In his address to the conference, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said the Paris agreement had sent a powerful signal that countries were serious about climate change.

“Australia is committed to the Paris agreement,” Taylor told the conference. “We are already on track to meet and beat the target we have set for 2030, just as we are meeting and beating our Kyoto targets. Our recently released forecasts say that we expect to beat our 2020 targets by 411 million tonnes, which is around 80 per cent of a full year of emissions.”

He urged the Madrid conference to finalise the arrangements for carbon markets “that give us confidence that traded carbon units represent genuine emissions reductions”.

Other countries suggested Australia was undermining genuine reductions.

Tennant Reed, the Australian Industry Group’s climate change and energy adviser, returned from Madrid with a slightly different take on the result.

He says COP25 was “in many respects … entirely typical and constructive across most areas”.

Reed acknowledges Australia’s position on carryover credits had affected the progress of negotiations. But he disputes the suggestion that it was why the agreement failed.

“That was very high stakes, very fraught and Australia’s piece of it was contested,” Reed says. “It was a source of criticism for sure. It does not, in the end, seem to have much to do with why the deal couldn’t be done.”

Reed argues the tougher contest involved Brazil’s push for the double-counting mechanism that would potentially allow developing countries to both sell credits and count them towards offsetting domestic emissions, a move strenuously opposed by the European Union delegation.

“I don’t know that it’s helpful or even accurate to call anyone the villain of this piece,” he says.

As the Madrid meeting ground through its final hours, Reed says delegates were so exhausted they kept falling asleep and leaning on the call buttons that signalled they wanted to speak.

The plenary president’s yielding to each inadvertent intervention was met with weary apologies.

It was similar in Copenhagen. There, then prime minister Kevin Rudd held a news conference at 3am to express his dismay at the collapse of the talks.

The cameras captured Penny Wong, then climate change minister, barely upright, swaying from tiredness behind Rudd as he spoke.

This week, Wong compared the Morrison government’s approach with the one the Rudd government took in Copenhagen and at the 2008 meeting in Bali, where its first international act was to ratify the Kyoto protocol.

“We used our credibility, our leverage and our commitment to try and bring developing countries together at Bali and at the COP[15],” Wong says.

“This government has no interest in Australia being part of the solution and it is only interested in dodgy accounting to avoid having a plan at home to reduce our emissions. I think we are rightly seen as a country that is not acting in our own interests, given that we are being hit hard by climate change, and we are not seen as a constructive international actor.”

Minister Taylor has dismissed criticisms of the government’s approach in Madrid.

“At COP25, Australia engaged constructively in the negotiations and was pragmatic in trying to find workable compromises,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“On article 6 [on international carbon markets], Australia supported robust market rules that would have ensured environmental integrity, driven investment and delivered lower-cost abatement. COP24 in Poland also failed to reach agreement on international carbon markets.

“Negotiations on markets will continue into 2020 and Australia will continue to seek out constructive solutions.”

Taylor rejects suggestions that Australia’s push for carryover credits was responsible for derailing the talks.

“Rules for domestic carryover were out of scope for article 6 negotiations, which only apply to international trades,” he says.

Australian delegates in Madrid are understood to have indicated that Australia didn’t consider the proposals on carbon markets perfect but was willing to find consensus. The Australian government attributes the collapse of talks to the failure of large developing countries – including China and India – to agree.

Since returning, Taylor has begun to adjust the government’s position on carryover credits, now arguing they are just a back-up and Australia will meet its Paris commitments without them.

Some view the shift as an attempt to retreat from a hardline stance that risks Australia being ostracised if other countries push ahead with their own international carbon market arrangements, leaving Australia behind.

Suzanne Harter says Madrid highlighted that citizens are stepping up where governments have failed.

“What everyone felt was the hope, the ray of light, was with people,” she says. “The young people that were there, the businesses making changes, the banks not funding fossil fuels. We’ll continue to push the government.”

What is less clear is how much the government will push back.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Carryover regardless".

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Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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