Mr Abbott may have won the majority of the votes in the party room, but if he wishes to do the same at the Federal Election, he must understand that the majority of Australians want action on climate change and will expect him to articulate a substantial policy, based on the science.
Kevin Rudd’s not off the hook either. If he really is serious about tackling climate change, he must not shy away from his promises to the Australian people. Now is not the time for timidity.
He must ensure that Australia plays its part in securing a legally binding global climate agreement that limits warming to as far below 2 degrees as possible and guarantees the ongoing finance that poor countries need to cope with the devastating impacts of climate change and to continue developing without exacerbating the problem.
It might be convenient to use the failure of the Emissions Trading Scheme legislation as an excuse for the Government not to lift its 5 per cent emissions reduction target, a scandalously low figure considering the science demands cuts of at least 40 per cent and Australia has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.
But an ETS is only one way that Australia could reduce emissions, others being higher renewable energy targets, energy efficiency measures and reducing deforestation.
The Government must show its commitment to a fair, strong global agreement by also coming clean on what climate finance it’s prepared to put on the table. It’s been silent on this for too long.
Providing climate finance is not about charity. It’s about the responsibility of rich countries, who have directly contributed to the climate crisis, to support poor people in developing countries, who are least to blame but are already suffering from its effects. It is also about rich countries living up to what they have already promised to do.
As the hottest and driest continent, Australia has much in common with poor countries around the world most affected by climate change, such as those experiencing prolonged droughts in Africa.
There is however one big difference: as a wealthy country Australia can invest billions in drought assistance to farmers, building pipelines and desalination plants to cushion the blows of climate change. Poor people in developing countries don’t have this option. Without financial support, they die.
By refusing to put appropriate offers on the table, rich countries have inflamed tensions and increased levels of distrust between the developed and developing world. Unless developed countries like Australia commit to long-term, predictable financing for poor countries, any agreement reached over the next fortnight is no real deal at all.
Oxfam estimates that rich countries need to provide at least US$150 billion each year from 2013, rising to US$200 billion by 2020, of new and additional public money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change and reduce emissions.
This money must come on top of agreed aid commitments by rich countries. It cannot be existing aid money repackaged to guarantee an international climate change deal. We cannot force poor countries to choose between building flood defenses and building hospitals.
Australia’s fair share of climate finance, based on our historical responsibility and financial capacity, is around US$3.5 billion per year in 2013, rising to US$4.6 billion each year by 2020.
This is far less than the cost of inaction. Modelling from a number of governments and international organisations has consistently shown this. As the Minister for Climate Change Penny Wong has said in recent weeks, the International Energy Agency estimates that an extra US $500 billion would be needed for each year significant action on cutting emissions is delayed.
The money can be found. The US$200 billion per year required is less than the annual subsidies provided in agricultural support by rich countries to their industries, and far less than the trillions of dollars found to bail out banks in the Global Financial Crisis.
People in poor countries desperately need financial assistance to upgrade national early warning systems, plant mangrove ‘bio-shields’ along the coast to diffuse storm waves and reduce inundation, test and grow drought-tolerant crop varieties, and develop other ways to build resilience to a worsening climate.
This money must be governed in a transparent, accountable manner by a new global climate finance mechanism that is efficient in delivering predictable flows of new and additional resources.
This can be done. The two most promising sources of reliable climate finance under discussion right now in Copenhagen are a levy on or trading scheme for aviation and shipping emissions and selling, auctioning or levying a percentage of international emission allowances currently given away for free to developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol.
Another way to raise finance could be earmarking revenues from domestic emissions trading schemes.
Our government needs to support these measures, and contribute serious finance that is not just a short-term fix, like the proposals of ‘fast-start finance’ currently being discussed, which are essentially re-packaged aid.
The picture is stark. The time for action is now. Anything other than a legally binding global climate deal that reduces emissions according to the science and delivers ongoing, public financing to poor countries on the scale that it is needed is not a good deal. It’s a green wash – and Australian voters will not be fooled.
This opinion editorial was first published in The National Times on 16 December 2009.