Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 23:11 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 23:11 | SYDNEY

The refossilisation of Australian climate policy

3 May 2010 09:48

Fergus Green is an environmental and climate change lawyer and a co-author of the Lowy Institute's Guide to the Copenhagen Negotiations.

One of the more entertaining rituals at international climate change negotiations is the nightly presentation by the Climate Action Network of the 'Fossil of the Day' Award to the countries that have done the most to stymie an environmentally effective outcome.

Australia, which has long zealously protected its fossil fuel interests in international climate negotiations, has been one of the most frequent recipients of 'Fossils' over the years. The outrageously favourable deal the Howard Government won during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations and its subsequent refusal to ratify the Protocol (one of only 2 industrialised nations to do so) helped cement its reputation as one of the world's most unrepentant carbon mules – up there with Saudi Arabia, Canada and the US.

With the election of the Rudd Government, Australia's image improved almost immediately. Rudd famously ratified Kyoto to rapturous applause during the Bali conference, vowed to implement an emissions trading scheme, became more constructive in international negotiations and started saying all the right things. This was mostly just better PR – Australia's essential negotiating interests and positions have not changed greatly since the Howard days – but there were some genuine improvements, too.

Last week, the Rudd Government unceremoniously dumped its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, vowing to 'reassess' its commitment to the scheme after the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period at the end of 2012. What's the significance of this date? By then, according to the Prime Minister, 'Governments around the world will be required to make clear their commitments for the post-2012 period. And that will provide...the Australian Government...with a better position to assess the level of global action on climate change'. 

Rubbish. Governments are not 'required' to announce their commitments for the post-2012 period by or at the end of 2012. The whole purpose of the Copenhagen conference and the ongoing negotiations is to shore up countries' post-2012 commitments before the end of 2012, so that a new international treaty can be negotiated, ratified, signed and enter into force in readiness to take over from Kyoto at the beginning of 2013.

The glacial pace of those negotiations means that those commitments may be no clearer in 2012 than they are now. Then again, they could be much clearer well before then. No-one knows. So for the PM to claim that all will be revealed at the end of 2012 is disingenuous at best.

Until last week, the Rudd Government had always said that the 2020 emissions reduction target it chooses will depend on the level of global ambition (assessed according to criteria that the Government has already changed once) but that the Government would at least implement an emissions trading scheme to achieve a unilateral 5% reduction below 2000 levels by 2020. Pathetic though that commitment was, it allowed Australia at least some basic level of control over its own carbon destiny. Now, it seems, Australia's climate policy is totally at the whim of other countries.

As Mr Rudd told the Lowy Institute in November:

...if every nation makes the decision not to act until others have done so, then no nation will ever act. The immediate and inevitable consequence of this logic – if echoed in other countries – is that there will be no global deal as each nation says to its domestic constituencies that they cannot act because others have not acted. The result is a negotiating stalemate. A permanent standoff.

For not only failing to act, but also backsliding on previous promises, falling short of his own confected rhetoric and contributing to a 'permanent standoff' in international climate talks, Kevin Rudd gets a well-earned Fossil.

Photo taken by the author at the Copenhagen climate conference.