For the first time in many years, overseas aid has been elevated to the spotlight during an election campaign, highlighting Australia’s potential to play a pivotal role in transforming our region and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Yet, while headlines have focused on how much aid the parties have, or have not, committed to give in eight years’ time, a victorious Howard or Rudd Government will face its first major test on international development and climate change just ten days after the election.
On 3 December, government delegations from around the world will descend on Bali for the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change. The significance of this meeting lies in the reality that there is now broad political will to kick-start negotiations for a post-2012 climate agreement.
Sadly, Australia – one of two countries not to have ratified Kyoto – is yet to give a clear mandate for the negotiation of a post-2012 climate treaty.
Yet, it is during the period of a post-2012 treaty that global emissions must peak and then begin to decline in order to avoid dangerous climate change. Failing to negotiate such an agreement would have a profound impact on humanity and our shared environment and is simply not an option.
The science is clear: even if global emissions are cut rapidly from today, the impacts of climate change will continue to worsen until at least 2030 and these impacts will be borne most heavily by the world’s poorest countries.
Therein lies the deep injustice of climate change – the countries which have contributed least to the problem will be, and already are, worst affected. On the other hand, rich countries like Australia that are responsible for many decades of greenhouse gas emissions continue to disproportionately reap the benefits of fossil fuel-dependent growth.
In our own region, Carteret Islanders in PNG have seen the seas rise over land where they once grew crops. More than 2000 are now trying to relocate to Bougainville. Similarly, in Tuvalu, strong winds and high tides regularly crash through damaged sea walls, bringing waves and debris onto the land and inundating homes.
Further afield, rising temperatures in Bolivia are increasing the incidence and intensity of forest fires and damaging agriculture, while changed rainfall patterns in Niger have contributed to increased desertification, massive losses in livestock and chronic food insecurity.
These countries, and many others, need urgent assistance to enable them to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Oxfam calculates this assistance required by developing countries will cost $54 billion a year – and far more if global emissions are not cut fast enough.
Australia’s fair share of this global amount is around $1.5 billion. Yet, to date, we have pledged a mere $6.3 million – the amount Australians spend on air-conditioners and desk fans every two days.
In its climate change plan, Labor has committed to lift adaptation assistance for developing countries to $150 million a year. This is a welcome initiative but will take Australia’s contribution to just one tenth of our fair share.
In a week where we have witnessed billions of dollars being splashed about at campaign launches and into the hip-pockets of Australian voters, it is clear that Australia can afford to help its poorer neighbours adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change.
The Coalition Government has made some good progress on aid in recent years, having committed to restore Australia’s aid levelfrom 0.26 per centof national income in 2005 to 0.31 per cent by 2010. It has also developed a new White Paper policy framework for the aid program. Labor has matched the Coalition on aid volume by 2010 and then promised to lift aid to 0.5 per cent of national income by 2015 – if it wins a third term. Both sides’ commitments however still fall below the agreed UN target of 0.7 per cent.
But assistance on climate change ought to be in addition to Australia’s existing aid budget allocations which rightly focus on health, education and disaster response. Moreover, some argue that adaptation assistance should not be considered aid but compensatory finance for the damage we have caused through decades of emissions.
The meeting in Bali gives Australia an opportunity to rebuild its international reputation on climate change which, to date, has been embarrassing. Whichever party wins on 24 November, the next Australian Government must start by ratifying Kyoto, supporting the negotiation of a post-2012 treaty and providing our fair share of the assistance needed by developing countries to adapt to climate change.
Many thousands of voters across the nation have made it clear they expect action on climate change and justice for the poor. Tired of the fear campaigns and unimpressed by desperate vote-buying, the Australian electorate appears ready to reach out – to our neighbours, to the poor, to the next generation, to the future.
An edited version of this opinion piece was published in Melbourne’s Herald Sun on 19 November 2007 & Brisbane’s The Courier Mail on November 23.