It’s true that people in poor countries on our doorstep won’t be voting for either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott later this month.
But Australians who care about doing the right thing will be. So it’s no reason for either of the leaders to abandon all mention, during this election campaign, of meeting Australia’s international obligations on climate change, or for not putting up policies that will genuinely reduce Australia’s emissions to the degree that is required.
At the UN Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in December, Australia committed to provide finance to help poor countries adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change that they are already experiencing.
Unfortunately, in the election costings the Coalition submitted to the Treasury on Friday, Tony Abbott has quietly cut at least $294 million from the aid budget, including funds that were earmarked to help developing countries deal with the effect climate change is having on the lives of their people.
This appears to be a broken promise. In April, he said the Coalition would match the Government’s commitment to increase Australia’s aid to levels of 0.5 per cent gross national income (GNI) by 2015. How is the Coalition showing its commitment to aid, when in their first year of government they would seek to cut it?
Climate change is the central poverty issue of our time. Oxfam is seeing the world’s most vulnerable – who have contributed least to climate change – already suffering most from its effects, facing greater droughts, floods, hunger and disease.
The vexed issue of climate finance – owed by high polluters such as Australia – to poor countries is again on the agenda at the UN Climate Change Negotiations this week in Bonn. And climate change has been on the agenda of the Pacific Islands Forum in Vanuatu this week, which Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is attending.
Contributing our fair share of international climate finance is not only the right thing to do, it would serve Australia’s own interests well.
Firstly, rather than shirking our responsibilities, honouring Australia’s commitment to so-called ‘fast-start finance’ for developing countries, made in Copenhagen, would help restore trust in the international climate change negotiations.
As the highest developed country emitter per capita in the world, Australia’s fair share of the $33 billion fast-start finance pledged by rich countries in Copenhagen is $760 million. So far, the Government has committed only $350.4 million in climate finance for 2012-13, as part of the aid budget.
Secondly, Australia contributing its fair share would not only help deliver a global climate agreement, it would help guarantee a more secure and prosperous world for all, including Australia.
Clean energy and adaptation investments in developing countries will ensure that rich countries, including Australia, have more prosperous trading partners, as well as avoid greater poverty and suffering.
Thirdly, acting now is cheaper than acting later; it makes good economic sense. This has been confirmed over and over again by numerous studies; Julia Gillard herself is right when she says the cost of inaction greatly outweighs the cost of action.
The number of people affected by climate-related natural disasters is projected to rise by 54 per cent to 375 million people over the next five years, threatening the world’s ability to respond. Yet countries – including our Pacific neighbours meeting in Vanuatu this week – have very few resources to deal with such disasters, so much of the extra associated costs would likely fall to countries like Australia.
We should want to be a good neighbour to those countries on our doorstep already experiencing saltwater inundation of crops, less predictable rainfall patterns and changing disease patterns.
Finally, as one of the hottest and driest continents, Australia has much in common with poor countries around the world most affected by climate change, such as those experiencing prolonged droughts in Africa. Both parties, therefore, should be acutely aware of their duty to act and lead, not only for the world’s poor, but for their own people.
There is, however, one big difference: as a wealthy country Australia can invest billions of dollars 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.
If climate finance is to have any real value for developing countries, it must come on top of pre-existing aid commitments, otherwise it is simply moving money around.
It’s heartening that both the Government and the Coalition have recently re-affirmed their commitment to increase Australia’s aid to levels of 0.5 per cent gross national income (GNI) by 2015, although the Coalition’s quiet cut to aid levels last week is a worrying backwards step.
Both parties must commit to providing climate finance that is additional to this existing commitment, otherwise vital funds are being taken away from poverty reduction, which will put the world further behind on meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
It’s not unrealistic to expect rich countries to come up with the necessary money. In Bonn right now, there is an opportunity to ensure climate finance is included in any international emissions trading scheme or levy for the maritime industry, which is to be discussed at the International Maritime Organization conference later this year.
Similarly, a miniscule 0.05 per cent tax on international financial transactions, dubbed the ‘Robin Hood Tax’, could deliver hundreds of billions of dollars – enough to help pay rich country domestic debts and meet their international obligations on poverty and climate change.
The world is moving. Many developing countries have already made significant steps to reduce emissions. They have also signalled their willingness to discuss further action – if developed countries provide financial and technological support.
China has agreed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, continues to be a world leader in wind power technology and has announced plans to introduce carbon trading from 2011. Emissions trading schemes are currently operating in New Zealand, Europe and in a number of states in the US.
Australia is a laggard on this issue, and risks being left behind, not only in terms of climate policy, but economically.
It’s true that people in poor countries on our doorstep won’t be voting for Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott later this month.
But Australians will be, and not only do many of us care about this issue, we have a lot at stake too.
Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial was first published by ABC’s The Drum Opinion on 4 August 2010.