Malcom Turnbull is going to the Paris Climate Talks., for the photo opportunity that the French are staging at the outset, hoping to avoid a repeat of the Copenhagen debacle. Environment Minister Greg Hunt will be there for the first week and Julie Bishop, angling for a co-chair role on the Green Investment Bank, will be there for the second.
As sentient Australians will know, Australia’s engagement with international environmental law has been, well, spotty, of late.
Things got off to a good start with Australia actively engaged at the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the United Nations Environment Program that came from that. By the late 1980s, thanks to action on whaling, ozone and especially the Antarctic, Australia had a reputation as a ‘good international citizen’. Then Foreign Secretary Gareth Evans pointed out that as what the international relations theorists call a ‘middle-power; Australia must “pursue our own political and economic interests with maximum effectiveness, but in a way that makes as positive a contribution as possible to a more peaceful and prosperous world.”
Negotiations for a climate agreement raced along in 1991. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had said he would go to the Rio Earth Summit where deals on both climate and biodiversity would be signed, but was deposed by Paul Keating before he could have that pleasure. Keating didn’t go to Rio, saying he had an election to fight. In the end, Ros Kelly, the Environment Minister, enthusiastically signed the climate pact, and in December 1992 Australia was the eighth nation to ratify the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”, with its vague goal that rich nations would return their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.
In the 18 months between Rio and enough nations signing for the agreement to come into force, and trigger the first “Conference of the Parties,” Australian business leaders got active, and there was talk of Australia potentially withdrawing from the UNFCCC agreement. By the time the first “COP” was held in March- April 1995, the Australian position had hardened to a demand that developing countries also have targets, and special consideration for Australia as a country with high coal usage, a spread out and growing population, and one expecting to make a packet from its fossil fuel exports (in this last it was joined by Nigeria and Saudi Arabia).
Keating, still not keen on the environment, and only a year from another election, sent John Faulkner, who put a brave face on it – “We came here to deal with the greatest threat to the global environment and the process has been partly to achieve a balance between all the countries affected by climate change.”
However, against the wishes of the Australian government, an agreement that only rich nations would have binding carbon cuts emerged. The so-called “Berlin Mandate,” it called for a deal to be made by the end of 1997.
John Howard’s Coalition government won power in March 1996. Although business could expect a very sympathetic hearing (by this time the Liberals position on climate change had shifted far from its 1988 to 1990 more-ambitious-than-Labor position), nothing could be taken for granted. On May 28 1996 a letter was sent by the Business Council for Australia and the new-ish “Australian Industry Greenhouse Network”. The letter expressed concern about Kelly-esque enthusiasm for international agreements. In part it called for
“a process to facilitate future developing country involvement in parallel with commitments for developed countries” (anathema still to India) and opined that “For Australia any outcome which does not allow for some growth in emissions would be unachievable, inequitable and extremely costly to the Australian economy.”
The letter also extolled the virtues of “independent” economic modelling that, it later emerged, had been mostly paid for by big fossil fuel companies (for details, see Clive Hamilton’s two books on Australian climate change policy “Running from the Storm” (2001) and “Scorcher” (2007).
This – the “national interest” understood through the lens of fossil fuels – was in essence the Howard government’s position at the next meeting, in Geneva, where it was seriously isolated (Clinton, facing an election, had signalled a willingness to talk about targets and timetables).
Intense trans-Pacific co-operation and lobbying by opponents of emissions followed, with a “Countdown to Kyoto” conference happening in Canberra in August 1997, complete with US Senators, doubting scientists and Greenpeace protesters. Famously, through some “hard bargaining” the Australian delegation was able to get both a target that allowed an increase in emissions and further wiggle room for ‘reduced land clearing’ – the “Australia clause”. For these services, Environment Minister Robert Hill reportedly received a standing ovation from his Cabinet colleagues.
Although Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol, it was slow in ratifying, and once President George Bush pulled America out, the stage was set for John Howard to do the same. He chose to announce it on World Environment Day, June 5th, 2002.
By now cracks were showing in Business Council of Australia between sectors that thought there was money to be made from Kyoto ratification, carbon cuts and emissions trading (bankers, gas providers mostly) and those who didn’t (miners) or thought it was a Communist hoax. Unable to resolve it, the BCA adopted a “no position” position. However, business lobbyists continued to be an integral part of the Australian COP delegations, to much amazement and consternation.
The Kyoto Protocol, which only called for very minor cuts, limped into existence with Russian ratification in February 2005. Now in his fourth term, John Howard advocated Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, widely seen as an attempted ‘spoiler’ to the Kyoto Protocol. US Congress had other ideas, and refused to fund it.
Kevin Rudd’s first official act was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. A week later he received a standing ovation at the Bali Climate Conference. His reception at Copenhagen, where he had become a ‘friend of the chair’ was less effusive, and his speech, which he had personally rewritten, gained no traction (Chubb, 2014)
Given the domestic pain she suffered over climate policy, Julia Gillard can be forgiven for not having booked flights to Cancun, Doha or Durban. In any case these were not COPs at which leaders were wanted or expected
The recent history is too fresh (and perhaps painful) to bear very much repeating.
“In 2013, for the first time outside an election period, the Australian delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) was not led by a minister.” (source)
Abbott’s derision about the Green Climate Fund (the one that Julie Bishop has angled to co-chair) as an “international Bob Brown bank” at the September 2013 CHOGM meeting provoked an unprecedented ‘minority report’ within the leaders communique (Sheridan, 2013)
Abbott studiously avoided the special UN summit in New York in September 2014, despite being nearby.
Attempting to keep climate off the G20 agenda in Brisbane, Tony Abbott was metaphorically shirt-fronted by reality, in the shape of an agreement between the USA and China.
While business seems to want ‘policy certainty’ (see the June 2015 launch of the Australian Climate Roundtable) Australia’s coal exports are not on the agenda.
Something will come of Paris. While emissions trading and carbon capture and storage are off the table, and even the word “treaty” is out, the Chinese are making noises that keep optimists optimistic. Perhaps if Julie Bishop gets the co-chair of what was derided as the ‘Bob Brown’ bank, the coal industry will be able to access the ‘Green Climate Fund’. We will know soon enough.