Thom Woodroofe
What it’s like to negotiate a climate agreement

Seven years ago, on the eve of the COP21 climate talks in Paris, I was in the French ministry of foreign affairs in the Quai d’Orsay when the new government led by Justin Trudeau arrived triumphantly to declare “Canada is back”, to great fanfare.

While the progressive government in Canada brought new-found energy to the international climate fight, the harsh reality is that this was not matched entirely by its actions. In fact, it took the government six years to change the headline emissions reduction target it inherited from its conservative predecessors.

The same cannot be said of the Albanese government. Less than one month after taking office, it had revoked Australia’s abysmal 2030 target. And with it, one of the worst vestiges of the Abbott era, up there with his Australian knights and dames.

This alone explains why the latest COP27, wrapping up this weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh, is the first United Nations climate gathering in nearly five years from which Australia hasn’t emerged as a diminished global power. In recent years, it has become par for the course that such gatherings result in stories of Australia siding with the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia to block progress.

It also explains why the prime minister’s no-show is not as big a deal as some made it out to be. The international community had not missed the significance of our May election.

However, while Australia may be back at the table in the international climate fight, the hard work in actually achieving our climate targets and ushering in the necessary transformation now begins. And on that, it will be a much harder grading curve.

After a decade of inaction, the scale of the Australian mitigation challenge is huge.

Australia has now committed to reduce emissions by 43 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 – almost twice as deep a cut as previously planned. At the same time, the country plans to take renewables to 82 per cent of our electricity mix – close to a threefold increase from where we stood a year ago and a massive change when you consider that coal-fired power still accounts for roughly two-thirds of our national electricity market.

In fact, by some estimates, on top of what we are already doing, we would need to halt all emissions nationwide for an entire year to achieve our current target. In other words, while the new government might have come with plans to rewire our electricity network, bring in vehicle emissions standards and create an offshore wind market, there is still a lot of work to do. This is why the proposed “safeguard mechanism” is so critical to ensure it isn’t just government doing the heavy lifting but business and industry too.

To have any chance of getting to net zero by mid-century, the hardest strides also need to be made this decade. To put it in perspective, between now and 2030 we need to constrain our emissions to 4381 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. But between 2030 and 2050 we will only be able to emit a further 3419 million tonnes. And we need to do all this as energy demands go through the roof as more of society becomes electrified, including 90 per cent of all new cars – up from just 2 per cent today.

Besides coming from a standing start, the government is also now doing this in the worst possible geopolitical and global economic circumstances. Which is why tempting political fixes, such as curbing our gas exports and repurposing them domestically to alleviate prices, might seem like easy economic solutions but are lousy environmental strategies in the long term.

Globally, Australia will be measured strictly against our trajectory towards achieving our new targets in the years to come. But two additional dilemmas will become increasingly obvious.

The first is our support for the fossil fuel industry. Like it or not, Australia is still one of the world’s largest exporters of emissions. The Adani name has become not just synonymous with Indian industrial wealth, but now Australian environmental exceptionalism. And Australia, like most of the G20, still provides huge subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, despite committing years ago to bring them to an end.

While the UN process only focuses on so-called onshore emissions, the juxtaposition of Australia’s climate ambition at home compared with the amount of fossil fuels we are digging up and shipping overseas, is striking; equally, it has become difficult for do-gooder climate countries such as Norway that have for years also built a huge sovereign wealth fund on the back of North Sea oil. The international community has a way of eventually holding up a mirror with your own reflection.

The problem for Australia is that two of the greatest myths that appear engraved on our national psyche are that coal exports are essential to our future economic existence and that renewables are a costlier and unreliable alternative to coal-fired power. Both are utter nonsense.

If there is a third myth, it is that we can do nothing to provide a just transition for the workers that are employed in our coal sector.

The reality is that coal increasingly produces very little by way of export revenue for Australia and it now has a limited shelf-life – including when it comes to customers such as China – whether we like it or not. Not to mention the fact that more people work at McDonald’s in Australia than in the coal sector. Or that our coalmines are precisely in the locations that are ripe for major renewable energy export projects such as green hydrogen, given their proximity to existing ports and other infrastructure. Those that are genuinely on the side of these coal workers are those that are thinking of the future of their jobs, their industry, and making it a just transition, not just nailing us all to the mast.

The other big dilemma is our international support for others tackling climate change, especially in the Pacific. Money matters in the global climate fight because it goes to trust that while the developed world is not cutting emissions as fast as the developing world wants, finance will flow to help with the impacts that will disproportionately hit the most vulnerable as a result.

This is why Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s declaration that the new loss and damage mechanism up for discussion in Egypt was all about “compensation” almost felt like a return to the era of Morrison’s “negative globalism”. What it is actually about is helping these nations cope with the impacts that have already arrived, including irreversible losses and damages that reduce their overall gross domestic product. Fiji’s reserve bank has calculated the country loses 5 per cent of its GDP each year to climate impacts. And Typhoon Nangka wiped out 3 per cent of the Marshall Islands’ GDP in a single night.

The answer here is not simply more money. The extra $1.4 billion the government has added to the aid budget over the coming five years will help (especially after the Morrison government left our overseas development assistance at its worst level comparatively since the Whitlam government formally established our aid program in 1973). But we must channel this money to the right places and ensure it is accessible.

That is why, if the government were to earmark some of this money to a future international mechanism for loss and damage beyond its own national efforts, and not just supporting mitigation and adaptation, it would go a long way in the region. Denmark and others have already pledged to do so. Rejoining the Green Climate Fund – from which Australia remains the only major western donor absent, having followed Donald Trump out the door – would also help, even though it isn’t perfect and shouldn’t be the only mechanism.

With the government having now settled on its desire to host the COP31 conference in 2026, such actions become all the more important – especially for the Pacific Islands, with whom the government hopes to co-host. An assumption that the Pacific will simply be onside, or won’t leverage that offer as they need to, would be a risky one to make of a group of nations whose existence relies on the actions of major emitters such as Australia.

Hosting the 2026 conference also means that another big test will come a year beforehand, when it is time for countries across the world to set their 2035 targets, and the focal point of the climate fight shifts from the end of this decade to the middle of the next.

While many of us – as well as the Biden administration – would have wanted to see the Albanese government adopt a 2030 target closer to the US target of 50-52 per cent, as other advanced economies have done, an even greater step-up will be needed by 2035. Some predict the newly revived independent Climate Change Authority will need to recommend a cut in the order of 75 per cent by 2035.

The good news is that, unlike other diplomatic or sporting campaigns, Australia should be a shoo-in to host the 2026 gathering, even though Turkey has now expressed interest. And more importantly, Australian diplomacy has shown time and time again that when we want to make a difference on the global environment, we can. Think of the Antarctic Treaty the Hawke government secured, or the fact that the Rudd government was the first to propose the global temperature limit that now guides the international effort, or even that the whole reason agricultural emissions are covered by the UN process is because the Howard government held up the Kyoto negotiations.

But above all else, the thing that will matter the most is if we can get to COP31 and say not just that Australia is back, but that we are leading the world by example.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 19, 2022 as "What it’s like to negotiate a climate agreement".

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