Money, power and trust are central to the divide on climate
Winter is coming to Poland, where temperatures dip below zero, but the coal-hungry European centre has become the last hope to pull progress on the Paris Agreement from the deep freeze.
It’s not just in Australia that tempers have been flaring over the future of the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.
An emergency meeting in Bangkok ended on September 9 in stalemate as longstanding divisions blocked progress on developing a rule book for how the Paris Agreement will operate.
Money, power and trust sit at the heart of the dispute, which will only intensify as governments prepare for the December 3 Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland.
Environment groups have blamed the US and Australia for frustrating negotiations on how a $US100 billion ($140bn) a year fund for developing nations will be managed.
Behind the scenes, a group of countries led by China has been working to widen the gap on how rules should apply differently to the developed and developing world.
This is familiar territory for anyone who has watched the two decades of UN climate change diplomacy.
Developing nations blame the developed world for causing the problem of climate change and insist on protecting their right to develop.
Simple mathematics shows developed nations cannot solve the problem alone.
The $US100bn fund has been the glue that brought developed and developing nations into a single compact. But the devil, as always, is in the detail.
It is usual in global climate change negotiations for talks to go down to the wire.
But the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen has shown that success cannot always be guaranteed.
A new level of uncertainty has been added to negotiations by US President Donald Trump’s decision to signal his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
A formal departure cannot be announced until November next year and would not take effect until November 2020. In the meantime, the US remains active in negotiations.
Without the US, ambitions to raise $US100bn a year from 2020 will be exponentially more difficult.
Uncertainty has allowed the pathway for the Paris Agreement to begin to unravel on several fronts.
The Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016, after it was adopted to a fanfare of consensus on December 12, 2015.
The deal is yet to be operational because agreement must still be reached on the rule book on how it will operate. In its present form, despite all the emotion vested in it, the Paris deal is merely an agreement of intent.
Even if it becomes operational, it will be largely voluntary, relying on international peer pressure to keep participants in check. Coun- tries will be obliged to report ambitions to keep future global temperature rises below 2C but there is no legal mechanism to enforce their actions.
Final details are supposed to be agreed by the end of this year.
But after Bangkok, despite some encouraging official pronouncements, that agreement seems as far away as ever.
Observers have said publicly that the Paris deal is on the brink of collapse.
India’s Economic Times laments “the world is now setting the new norms of not keeping the promises made on global cooperation”.
These developments provide context to debate about the future of the Paris Agreement in Australia, where the focus has been on what level targets should be set to cut future carbon dioxide emissions.
Internationally, despite its relatively small contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions, Australia is still playing a very active role in negotiations.
In resisting calls from within his party to abandon the Paris deal because of the cost to electricity prices of a renewable energy tran- sition, Scott Morrison has mained fixed on diplomacy.
“I have to consider not just the issue here,” the new Prime Minister told Sydney 2GB radio host Alan Jones.
“In the Pacific, this is an issue which is incredibly important. This issue dominates their thinking and agenda. Now the Pacific is one of the most strategic areas of influence in our world today.”
In short, backsliding on the Paris Agreement could have big regional consequences and frustrate negotiations for free trade with the EU.
Despite the criticism levelled at Australia during the Bangkok talks, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says we are committed to the Paris Agreement process.
“Australia wants to secure comprehensive and effective implementing guidance for the Paris Agreement, including robust emissions accounting and transparency rules,” the DFAT spokesman says.
“Australia is aiming for the Paris Agreement implementation guidance to be finalised at COP24 in December (Poland) this year and supports effective assistance, including financial assistance to be provided to developing countries.”
Australia has invested more than half of a commitment made in 2015 to spend $1bn across five years (2015-16 to 2019-20) to support developing countries to build climate resilience and reduce emissions.
This includes $300 million across four years for climate action in the Pacific.
Australia’s assistance is grantbased, based on partner country requests, balanced across mitigation and adaptation, and focused on small island developing states and less developed countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
The money is dispersed through multilateral, global, regional and country-level mechanisms through the Australian aid program managed by DFAT.
The truth, however, is that global talks on finance have stalled over whether loans and existing foreign aid should be counted as part of the proposed $US100bn a year fund from 2020.
In addition, delivery of funding through the interim Global Climate Fund has been shambolic.
Pledges to the GCF have totalled $US10.4bn but only $US3.5bn has been committed. The US withdrew $US2bn promised to the fund when Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
GCF administrators cannot agree how the fund money should be spent, with the Australian chairman resigning abruptly in July for “personal reasons” after an acrimonious meeting.
A delegate at the Bangkok meeting was quoted as saying “GCF is melting down faster than Antarctica”.
No one is disputing there is much work still to be done.
“Frankly, we are not ready,” last year’s climate conference president and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared on the opening day of the Bangkok summit.
After the talks the official view was that progress had been “uneven”, a description that is loaded with peril in the language of these talks.
Climate Victoria climate and energy adviser Erwin Jackson says the compilation text that emerged from Bangkok lacks the streamlined clarity required for smooth negotiation in Poland.
A thorough analysis by the International Institute for Sustainable Development says while the options are now more clearly identified, they reveal fundamental disagreement on many of the key issues.
“Familiar political disagreements underpin several key issues,” the IISD analysis says.
“It is these issues that could throw a wrench in the gears, potentially halting negotiations and threatening a successful outcome in Poland.”
Finance remains a perennial roadblock.
Developing countries, led by Africa, want much greater detail on how much money will be provided and greater freedom over how it will be spent. The African Group, supported by other developing countries, has attempted to link finance to the “transparency framework” in which countries must declare what actions they are taking.
By tying these issues together, a failure to agree on finance “could result in parties stalling, or blocking, the realisation of the transparency framework, potentially leading to the collapse in Katowice that some fear”, IISD says.
Another principal roadblock is differentiation that centres on burden sharing in the collective effort to reduce emissions, given countries’ different historical responsibilities for the problem and capacities to address it.
The Like-Minded Developing Countries including China, India and Saudi Arabia recall the convention’s bifurcated approach that treated developed and developing countries differently.
Moving on from bifurcation, the premise of the original Kyoto agreement, which excluded developing countries, was a non-negotiable tenet of US participation in Paris.
“At stake in these negotiations is the degree to which all major emitters, inducing key emerging economies, will contribute to mitigation,” IISD says.
In short, it says, differentiation and finance have long been the wrenches in the gears of global climate action.
“Developing countries continue to call for new, additional and predictable finance that will enable them to undertake sustainable development,” the IISD analysis says.
“Developed countries continue to demand broader participation in the mitigation effort and transparency of all countries’ actions.
“In Katowice, parties will have to find a way to interpret deeply held political differences papered over by the Paris Agreement’s ambiguous language.
“Given these disagreements have fuelled tensions for at least two decades, the task for Katowice is indeed daunting.”
To keep the pressure on, a series of grand events have been planned between now and the Polish meeting, which has been extended by one day.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a major speech last Monday in which he said the “direct existential threat” of climate change was nearing a point of no return.
The IPCC will deliver a special report next month on the implications of 1.5C warming.
A leaked draft of the report says global warming is on track to breach the toughest limit set by the Paris climate agreement by the middle of this century unless governments make unprecedented economic shifts from fossil fuels.
Governments also will have to start sucking CO2 from the air to achieve the ambition of meeting the lower target, the draft says.
Guterres calls for a shift away from the dependency on fossil fuels towards cleaner energy and away from deforestation to more efficient use of resources.
In his call to action, Guterres describes arguments that tackling climate change is expensive and can harm economic growth as “hogwash”. “In fact, the opposite is true,” he says.
Hard-pressed Australian electricity consumers may beg to differ.
But, by nature, the politics of climate change transcends national borders.
And as with Copenhagen, the Paris Agreement remains far from being a done deal.
‘In the Pacific, this is an issue which is incredibly important. This issue dominates their thinking and agenda. Now the Pacific is one of the most strategic areas of influence in our world today’ SCOTT MORRISON