Australia’s Abbott government has been accused of intentionally taking measures that might lead to an international greenhouse gas emission target in Paris, next year. Australian leaders are keen on insisting there should be a binding legal agreement between the countries that agree to the action, arguing that in lack of such a internationally enforceable framework the agreement would lack credibility. Critics have been quick to voice that such a measure is destined to fail since it would almost automatically put countries like US, China and India out of the picture, which are actually the key players that need convincing. Australia’s current government has proved time and time again that it cares little about climate change by cutting various projects and actually backing fossil fuel use. As such, their actions are suspicious to say the least.

Tensions rise

This week, negotiators from 194 countries met in Lima, Peru to discuss a potential format for the Paris talks next year where an international emissions target, similar to the Kyoto Protocol from 1997, might come into effect. Experts seem to agree that the best course of action is to guide each country to implement a domestic law that enforces emissions target, one that’s customized on a case by case basis. If the framework is guided under an international treaty format, where countries are legally bound, then the whole process is destined to fail since countries like the US and China won’t ever concede. With US and China out, there’s little reason for the other countries to participate anymore.

“It seems like they are trying to set impossible conditions so that they can portray a successful Paris agreement as a failure,” said Frank Jotzo, associate professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School.

“Legally binding instruments can build confidence that countries will act on the commitments they make internationally. However, the legal form of an international agreement does not determine its effectiveness. The most binding treaty will do little to address climate change if some major emitters like the US and China do not participate.”

The former Labor government’s expert adviser on climate policy, Professor Ross Garnaut, seems to agree.

“A comprehensive legally binding agreement is not possible because that is not what the US does,” he said for The Guardian. “It is rare for the US to bind itself on anything. Woodrow Wilson was unable to get the US Senate to support membership of the League of Nations that was the creation of the United States.

“President Obama has made it clear that he will not support US participation in a legally binding agreement, and that instead the US has made a serious domestic commitment to implementing the ambitious objectives embodied in the Xi-Obama Agreement. China will not enter a legally binding agreement if the US does not. So forget about it.”

Ignorant or malevolent? It’s just so hard to tell with Abbott and co.

Christiana Figueres (L), executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) addresses the opening meeting of the plenary session Photo: Xinhua News Agency/REX

Christiana Figueres (L), executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) addresses the opening meeting of the plenary session Photo: Xinhua News Agency/REX

The Kyoto Protocol that was adopted in 1997, but which only came into force in 2005, was signed in recognition of a dire need to tackle climate change by setting reduction targets. The aim was reduce emissions by 5% from 1990 levels. Today the world spews 58 per cent more greenhouse gases than it did in 1990. An utter failure. Kyoto too was set as a binding agreement, but this did little to help. Instead, the focus should be on setting realistic targets.

“A legally binding agreement is of no value anyway, as, while it may be legally binding, such an agreement is not enforceable. Look at Canada’s walking away from its legally binding Kyoto commitments … and there is no evidence that countries are more likely to deliver on notionally legally binding than on domestic political commitments,” Garnaut continued.

The Australian government’s independent advisory board, the Climate Change Authority, was also critical of a legally binding framework. Unsurprisingly, the Australian government unsuccessfully sought to abolish the panel.

“One thing the Paris meeting will not deliver is a universal, prescriptive, enforcement-oriented legal agreement, similar in form to the existing Kyoto protocol. For one thing, such an outcome is not achievable in the short term.

“Insisting on it would likely be counterproductive and lead to more modest global action. The value of the Paris outcome will be its effect on emissions and efforts over time, not its particular legal form.”

Among the critics of a legally binding Paris treaty is world renowned economist Lord Nicholas Stern, lead author of the Stern Report – an influential review on the economics of climate change.

“Some may fear that commitments that are not internationally legally-binding may lack credibility,” he said to the BBC.

“That, in my view, is a serious mistake. The sanctions available under the Kyoto Protocol, for example, were notionally legally-binding but were simply not credible and failed to guarantee domestic implementation of commitments.”

Lord Stern believes that grounding the process in the laws and promises that countries undertake by themselves is a better model for a deal than a top-down process like Kyoto. The EU has already committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 40% from 1990s levels, while the US will cut 30% of its emissions from 2005 levels.

“It will be enforceable and deliverable through the arrangements and laws in the countries themselves.

“That way you will get stronger ambition as countries won’t be tempted to be hesitant about some type of international sanction.”

An ignorant government

Earlier this year, President Obama pledged between $2.5 billion and $3 billion over the next four years to the Green Climate Fund, an international effort to help poor countries address climate change. The Australian government has declined to contribute, stating that it already pays for climate adaptation via its foreign aid budget.

Under the guidance of its prime-minister, Tony Abbott, Australia has gone on a seemingly climate change denial path. Last July, the country scrapped its carbon tax, and its emissions rose after a promising six-year trend of decline. Only a few months ago, the Australian government approved works for the construction of the world’s largest coal mine. And these are only a couple of Abbott’s anti climate change initiatives.

Without a doubt, as it stands today, the Australian government is the world’s most ignorant in terms of climate change action of all the developed countries. While it’s under constant pressure from other countries to revise its take on climate change – something that might keep Australia isolated – it will be interesting to see how things pan out in Paris next year. Most likely, the country will refuse to sign any agreement, but we can only hope they won’t influence other countries as well.

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