Will Australia be the great coal defender at Lima climate talks?

Graham Readfern, The Guardian, 3rd December 2014

Australia heads to major climate negotiations in the wake of high level defence of its coal industry

People arrive to the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, Monday, Dec. 1, 2014.
People arrive to the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

That was a year ago in Warsaw, Poland, where Australia was establishing a new reputation as a negative force on global climate negotiations.

“Australia gets it,” said the climate science denialist talking head Marc Morano, a man most often seen verballing peer-reviewed science on conservative American cable news channels.

But Morano made another statement that seemed to be an attempt make the brains of as many greenies as possible go kaboom.

Coal is the moral choice,” said Morano.

But what appeared then to be a ridiculous statement, is now Australia’s official political position.

We’ve had Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “coal is good for humanity”, the Treasurer Joe Hockey’s “we export coal to lift nations out of poverty” and the Finance Minister Matthias Cormann’s “coal is good”.

Kaboom! Kaboom! Kaboom!

Since Warsaw, Australia has also become the first nation in the world to actually remove laws to price greenhouse gas emissions and the Abbott Government continues to push for a cut to its own target on renewable energy generation.

Australia also declared its hottest year on record – 2013 – with 2014 likely to also be among the five hottest years on record (we have also just had the hottest November on record and the hottest spring on record).

Globally, 2014 is on track to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – years ever recorded.

Now the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 20thConference of the Parties meeting in Lima (to be hereafter mercifully referred to as COP20) is underway (I’ll be there in three days time).

The key task for negotiators is to have in place the draft text of a new deal to be signed in Paris in late 2015 (at COP21) that for the first time will include all countries – both developed and developing.

Countries won’t need to declare exactly what steps they’ll take in Lima (known as Intended National Determined Contributions, or INDCS) and can wait until March next year, although some have started that ball rolling already.

The European Union wants to cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

The US wants to cut emissions by between 26 per cent and 28 per cent by 2025 from where they were in 2005.

The US made that pledge as part of a deal with the world’s largest emitter, China, which said it would peak its emissions in 2030 by which time 20 per cent or more of its energy would be coming from “non-fossil” resources such as hydro, solar and wind.

While this sounds promising, if the rest of the world matched the so-called ambition of China and the US, the supposed 2C “guardrail” to avoid dangerous global warming would be overshot (some countries, particularly low-lying ones, say a 1.5C target should be adopted).

That China-US deal has though reportedly put a more optimistic tone on the start of the Lima talks, where Australia has a delegation of 12 – its smallest in years (there were more than 100 at the fateful 2009 Copenhagen meeting).

And whereas in Warsaw the government decided not to send any ministers, this year the Australian delegation will be joined by two – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb (Robb was shadow minister for Industry and Climate Change for a year in 2008).

While in opposition in 2011, Bishop was striking a denialist tone on climate change science in a column published in Fairfax newspapers.

Bloggers later found that Bishop had likely cut and pasted the material from climate science denial blogs.

Bishop’s sympathy for people who rejected the multiple lines of evidence for human caused climate change was similar to a piece she had written in 2008.

In a mining industry conference speech earlier this year, Robb celebrated the future of brown coal – the dirtiest form of the already dirty fossil fuel.

Robb said brown coal was “a resource that is often demonised, particularly by those who oppose growth and development”.

A few weeks ago Robb also jumped to the defence of Bishop, who had said the Great Barrier Reef was “not in danger” – contradicting the view of her government’s own science agencies.

So what will Bishop, Robb and Australia be looking for in Lima?

In October, Australia laid out its starting position in a document submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat.

In the document, Australia said it wanted all countries to be working on a “common playing field” and that countries must be allowed to take action that would “sustain economic growth”.

The action needed to be “appropriate to their national circumstances and policy choices” and any pledges “must include clear, credible and quantifiable emissions reduction commitments by all” that would “deliver real global outcomes”.

This is the language of multi-lateral climate negotiations – broad, woolly and open to a wide array of interpretations.

As I’ve said, Australia and other countries won’t need to put down on paper what they will actually do on emissions (their INDCs) until next March – about eight months before the Paris meeting.

That will at least give some time for negotiators and civil society groups to pour over the paperwork to see how big the gap is between the pledges and having a decent shot at keeping global temperatures below 2C (and lowering the risks of all the impacts that come from rising temperatures, such as increasingly furious extreme weather events and rising sea levels).

One overwhelming weakness of the UNFCCC process is that it can only proceed if every party agrees; meaning one country or a group of countries can dig the heals in until they get what they want.

Australia’s ministerial pairing of Bishop and Robb will surely be looking to protect the nation’s coal industry that vies with Indonesia as the biggest exporter of the fossil fuel in the world.

That could be why Australia wants any pledges from countries to be “appropriate to their national circumstances and policy choices”.

Australia’s policy choice is to do away with pricing greenhouse gas emissions and cut ambition for renewable energy.

The “national circumstance” appears to be the world’s greatest defender of coal.