Climate talks mired again in rhetoric

Bookmark and Share Economics & Deregulation, Energy and Climate Change | Tim Wilson
The Australian 23rd November, 2013

The direction of UN climate change talks is repeating the mistakes of the failed 2009 Copenhagen conference, with serious implications for Labor if they continue to support the carbon tax. The latest round of UN talks concluded yesterday in Warsaw, Poland.

While there are always declarations of "breakthroughs" and "progress", the seemingly uneventful talks were focused on technicalities and broad themes to inform the conclusion of a post-2020 international carbon-cutting treaty by the 2015 summit in Paris.

Successfully negotiating any new international treaty is difficult. Negotiating windows always narrow as multiple, competing agendas are proposed by the 190-odd participating countries.

Treaties to cut greenhouse-gas emissions are not just about countries adopting emissions targets - they impact on competing economic, financing, energy, social, environmental, governance, security and sovereignty interests, to name but a few.

Nor are governments the only players.

Formal processes now include the views of different "constituencies" that attend the talks.

In Warsaw, big-business interests were pushing for governments to provide them with subsidies and the creation of speculative 'green' financial products that they can profit from, under the disguise of saving the planet.

Meanwhile, activists are pushing additional agendas on to the table, including climate change and health, equity, gender equality, human rights and development.

Every additional agenda included in negotiations adds costs and reduces the capacity for a deal to be struck.

Competing agendas ultimately led to Copenhagen's collapse.

A draft document released at this conference of "indicative elements" of the post-2020 agreement includes shifting the costs and obligations of cutting global emissions on to the developed world.

Under the banner of equity, developing countries expect countries such as Australia to shoulder most of the cost of reducing global emissions, even though developing countries are the source of future emissions growth.

That proposition is increasingly wearing thin.

Last year, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Russia walked away from taking on new emissions reduction targets up to 2020 under the Kyoto Protocol because it didn't share the cutting load.

Similarly, the expectations on developed countries to financing the $100 billion-a-year Green Climate Fund to aid developing countries in adapting to a changing climate dogs negotiations.

Australia alone is projected to tip $2.4bn into the fund, but it doesn't end there.

As an observer of the Warsaw talks said this week: "If you want to know where the negotiations are heading, follow the money."

This year's conference included formal discussions for another fund for "loss and damages" caused by climatic events.

The G77 negotiating bloc of developing countries and China staged a conference walkout because those expected to finance this new fund - Australia, the EU and US - want discussions to be left off the table until after 2015.

Like the Green Climate Fund, developing countries want a financed "loss and damages" fund as a tradeoff for developing countries to take on obligations in a post-2020 agreement.

With two years to go, the unresolved issues keep mounting.

In response, the UN Secretariat is trying to build momentum in the lead-up to the Paris summit to push a deal over the line. Instead, it is looking more like Copenhagen, where negotiations were pushed over a cliff.

For domestic politics and policy, Bill Shorten should be learning from Labor's past mistakes.

Despite the forewarning that the conference would fail, Kevin Rudd married the introduction of his emissions trading scheme closely to the success of the Copenhagen international climate talks.

The talks were supposed to usher in a new agreement, where countries would discard national interest in favour of the internationalist objective of cutting global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Once Copenhagen imploded, the remaining legitimacy of Rudd's ETS quickly faded in the lead-up to the 2010 election.

Copenhagen's collapse also validated the Coalition's opposition to carbon taxation.

Despite the best efforts of the UN, outside of the lofty rhetoric and protestations of green groups there's little momentum for an agreement in 2015.

If the Opposition Leader allows the carbon tax repeal, he will go into 2016 with a clean political slate.

If not, he is likely to face an election nine months after the failure of yet another major climate summit wedded to an economically damaging and environmentally ineffectual carbon tax without the necessary global legal framework to justify or support it.

History need not repeat itself, but that requires Shorten to learn from Rudd's mistake.