With November's United Nations climate talks cancelled, green-leaning world leaders will be hoping the Australian government uses the downtime to rethink its controversial climate policies.
The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP26, was set to be held in Glasgow in November but has been pushed to next year due to the pandemic. A previous COP developed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the international pressure countries exert on each other through it continues to have a significant impact on domestic policies, including in Australia.
International pressure on Australia is not expected to ease, despite the 12 month delay to international climate talks in Glasgow.Credit:Jonathan Carroll
Australia's former top climate diplomat, Howard Bamsey, who led negotiations at a number of COPs, says despite the pandemic’s disruption to the Glasgow forum, the British government will continue to pressure Australia and other countries to increase their efforts on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
“If the Prime Minister hasn’t heard from [his British counterpart] Boris Johnson yet, he certainly will,” says Bamsey, who is adjunct professor at Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, and was previously Australia’s special envoy on climate change.
Glasgow is set to be particularly controversial. Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to revise their emissions plans every five years, which are expected to grow increasingly ambitious in line with the scientific advice on the volume of reductions required to keep global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius.
“This COP was the one where countries came together and heavied one another to do better on climate change,” Bamsey says.
“The UK will expect Australia to do more in the international interest and help the UK achieve a good result in Glasgow, and we will be expected to bring a strong package [of climate policies].
“I’m sure the UK, as soon as it can, will be trying to influence other countries.”
Australia's commitment to the Paris Agreement requires emissions reduction of at least 26 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels, and all countries must also reach net-zero emissions by the end of this century.
An overarching requirement is to follow the "best available science" to make the emissions reduction required to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which experts say means the world needs to hit net-zero emissions before 2050.
Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor has committed to meet the 2030 target and has released a discussion paper on a technology roadmap which he said would be a "cornerstone" of that effort. He maintains that Australia is required to achieve net zero only in the second half of the century.
At last year’s COP in Madrid Australia controversially joined with Brazil and Saudi Arabia to oppose the push from a bloc of 31 countries – including Germany, France, Britain, New Zealand and Pacific nations – to develop the "San Jose principles", which included a ban on countries' use of carry-over credits from expired climate treaties to meet current climate goals.
Frank Jotzo, a professor of environmental economics and lead author of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is used by the COP, says the delay to Glasgow created a wild card for the forum now set for 2021 because it would fall after the US presidential election in November.
“[Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden has made it clear an administration under him would act strongly on climate change and would seek to entice other nations to do likewise,” Professor Jotzo says.
“This would also manifest itself through pressure on US allies … and the Australian government’s outlook on climate change commitments and policy will probably shift to some extent, by virtue of the pressure from Washington.
“But if you look back to the Obama presidency in the US, that was also a time when China engaged much more internationally because there can be an element of competition between the big powers.”
Jotzo says it remained “unclear” what role China would play “and it's difficult to speculate”. Bamsey, however, expected China “will play a big role”.
“I see no reason to expect China won’t push ahead very strongly, and I think China will expect Australia to do pretty well too. That’s something that they and the UK will have in common,” he says.
Speaking on Tuesday to a webinar of the Coalition for Conservation group, former Howard government Environment Minister Robert Hill said Australia "can afford to be a leader" on the urgent changes needed to limit the impact from climate change and “the delay of a year I think actually is helpful to Australia”.
“It gives the government a bit more time to work out what Angus Taylor is referring to as his long-term strategy, and the plan is to take that strategy to the COP,” Hill said.
He urged the Morrison government to bolster its technology roadmap with commitments under Paris to emissions reduction beyond 2030, arguing the “longer-term goal has to become a target”.
Bamsey says Austraia has "plenty we can take to the next COP, but the focus there will be on targets, and that’s where we don’t have a strong story to tell".
“Most people would be astonished to know what we have done in the international context to bring about the architecture we have now. Our contribution has been strong and we’ve had the international interest in sight," he says.
Bamsey says Australia’s achievements in promoting emissions reduction technology were powerful in land management and our trailblazing take-up of rooftop renewables.
“We have also made a useful contribution in the land sector and related activities, with expertise developed around carbon farming initiatives that other countries don’t have but could be enormously useful for them,” he says.
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