The G20 is gathering in Brisbane, Australia this weekend and the perfect storm to push climate change onto the agenda may be forming. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has fought hard to keep climate and clean energy off the meeting’s itinerary, similar to the way his government has sharply curtailed domestic efforts on both fronts. Even this week, facing renewed pressure in light of the groundbreaking U.S.-China deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Abbott remained staunchly in the corner of Australia’s fossil fuel interests.
Meanwhile, Queensland, where the G20 summit is being held, is enveloped in a brutal heatwave. Areas around Brisbane will experience an “extreme heatwave” during the main meeting days of Saturday and Sunday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
When questioned about the impact of the U.S-China agreement on the G20, Abbott said he is not focusing on “what might happen in 16 years’ time” — a reference to China and other countries’ 2030 GHG and clean energy targets — but “what we’re doing now” which, following his logic, requires the G20 to focus on jobs and economic growth.
In case there was any ambiguity regarding what Abbott meant with these comments, last month he said that “coal is good for humanity” and that “coal is an essential part of our economic future.”
Abbott is blowing against the wind, so to speak, as the deal between the U.S. and China, in which the U.S. aims to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and China to peak emissions by 2030, has galvanized global momentum going into two major U.N. climate summits at the end of this year and next.
Just a few years ago, Australia was a leader in the international effort to confront climate change and was one of the first countries to implement a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions. However, the Liberal Party coalition, led by conservatives, has since repealed the program and is now committed to a Direct Action policy that mandates a five percent cut in emissions by 2020 compared to 2000 levels. There is skepticism that Australia will even meet this minimal target, and going forward stricter cuts under the Direct Action policy become even more daunting.
Not only is the Direct Action plan unlikely to achieve its modest goal, but it’s also a very costly way of trying to cut emissions, especially when coupled with the government’s effort to reduce renewable energy targets, which has stifled investment in the industry.
The Australia-based Climate Institute calculated that using Direct Action to achieve a greenhouse gas reduction target for 2025 equivalent to the new U.S. promise could cost as much as $30 billion a year by 2025. The program relies on an Emission Reduction Fund (ERF) that is distributed to polluters to incentivize them to pollute less.
“Yesterday’s historic U.S.-China emissions reduction agreement is reshaping international and economic alignments,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute, in a statement. “The announcement spotlights the ludicrous inadequacy of the Emissions Reduction Fund as a primary pollution policy. We should return to a framework where the polluters pay, rather than the taxpayers, for emissions reduction.”
The G20 meeting brings together the world’s largest economies and the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. These countries account for 85 percent of global GDP and over 75 percent of global trade. The bloc is led by the U.S. and China, the two largest global economies.
“This announcement means that laggard states like Australia can no longer hide behind the fiction that major developing economies like China are unprepared to make serious efforts to cut their emissions,” wrote Peter Christoff, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne who focuses on climate politics and policy.
Christoff called the U.S.-China deal a “game-changer” but cautions that their commitment alone won’t be enough to reverse the emissions trend before 2030 — a point at which it will be “impossible to hold global warming below the world’s agreed limit of 2C above pre-industrial levels.”
Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, said that Australia would announce its post-2020 GHG target in the first half of 2015, the deadline for countries to announce goals in the lead up to the U.N. climate summit in Paris at the end of the year. In the meantime, Abbott remains focused on not focusing on climate change.
“This is a major economic conference, it is the world’s premier economic conference,” he said this week, rebuffing calls for climate to be made more significant in no small part for its relevance to and impact on economic issues.
Joe Hockey, Australia’s treasurer, welcomed the U.S.-China pact, saying climate change would be part of the agenda, but that the “whole agenda is focused on growth and jobs.”
With Australia experiencing its hottest year on record in 2013, some 400 Australians took their frustration with the government to the beach this week, staging a demonstration in which they buried their heads in the sand.
“You have your head in the sand on climate change,” said the organizers of the demonstration from 350.org Australia, addressing Abbott.