Why Kyoto still matters

Campaigns and Advocacy, Climate Change, Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 27 Aug 2012


Remember the Kyoto Protocol?  The only international legally binding framework the world has to reduce emissions?  Signing it, to much fanfare, was Labor’s first significant act after being swept to victory in 2007.  It signalled Australia’s willingness to finally join international action to fight climate change.

Now, the first incarnation of Kyoto is about to come to its end, but that fight is far from over.  A second phase of the Kyoto Protocol would pave the way to a more ambitious and inclusive global climate treaty, which is what we desperately need if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

While the Government has copped a hammering on many fronts in recent years, the decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol remains popular, according to polling released last week by WWF.  The Opposition’s climate change spokesman Greg Hunt also is now on the record as saying his party supports signing on to the next phase.

So we need to ask why, with the inaugural five-year commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol coming to an end this year and with clear public support for its continuation, has the Government been holding off on a decision to sign up to the next phase?

As a leading international development agency working in over 90 countries, Oxfam has witnessed first-hand an increasing number of weather-related disasters – from the 2010 Pakistan floods that displaced 20 million people (the entire population of Australia) to the current crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa where low rainfall, poor harvests and high food prices mean an estimated 18.7million people are right now experiencing severe food shortages.

These trends are consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warnings of less predictable rainfall, more heat waves and significant disruption of growing seasons globally. Oxfam fears that without strong action, 50 years of development gains in poor countries could be lost.

Against this backdrop, the need for an effective global response to the climate crisis is more urgent than ever. Granted, the excruciatingly slow pace of complex international climate negotiations has prompted some to favour a bottom-up perspective on climate action, reconciling disappointments at the UN level with regional and local success stories, such as Germany’s aggressive pioneering of solar technologies, China’s ambitious plan to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy, a Herculean effort by the Maldives to become “climate neutral by 2020”, or our own introduction of a carbon price.

But for the world’s least developed countries, an international solution remains imperative. Only a global approach can address the issue of equity – the disproportionate impact of climate change on developing countries, in particular women, who as the main food producers bear the greatest burden in a changing climate and yet have done the least to cause it. And for Australia, a flight from Kyoto could see us effectively excluded from international carbon markets, making it harder to reach our agreed emissions reduction targets.

A second Kyoto commitment period provides the crucial legal and political segue to a new and more effective international agreement. Without it, the prospects of a comprehensive global treaty, of the world mobilising the funds to support developing countries in building climate-resilient communities, of making good on our own clean energy laws and leveraging these towards stronger global action, are all greatly diminished. There already is bipartisan support for emissions reduction targets of 5 per cent, with the possibility of this rising to 25 per cent by 2020 under the right conditions. Kyoto is another tool that will help us get there.

We should not confuse weariness over the domestic politics of climate change, poisoned by months of protracted wrangling over price rises, with the level of public support for action on climate change per se, including Australian contributions to international efforts.

The latter, as last weeks’ polling has shown, remains strong. Australians still recognise Kyoto as a success story, as proof that international cooperation is possible, and understand our responsibilities as an advanced economy to play a positive role towards getting an effective global agreement that supports the rights of all communities to development and which avoids dangerous climate change.

No one has seriously suggested that the Kyoto Protocol alone is enough. Rather, it must be understood as a vital step in a bigger process, as it signals that the developed countries with the most historical responsibility for emissions are meeting their commitments.   True, it does not place restrictions on major ‘economies in transition’, such as China.

But since the UN Climate Change Negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, all major countries, including China, have recognised the dangers of climate change and the imperative to reduce emissions. And since the climate change negotiations in Durban in 2011, all major countries, including the US, have committed to working towards a legally binding treaty. Significantly, many countries outside of the Kyoto Protocol are doing more than the advanced economies to cut pollution.

With the international community convening climate change negotiations in Bangkok at the end of this month, Australia needs to get off the fence and commit to staying in the Protocol. Further delay risks compromising progress at the next global climate change summit in Doha at the end of the year.

There are many good reasons for Australia to sign. There is strong community support for Kyoto and a recognition that international agreement is in Australia’s national interest, and the interests of the world’s most vulnerable. There is no good reason not to.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published in The Punch on 24 August, 2012.