Will Rudd Pay A Price For Climate Failure?

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Make no mistake: Copenhagen failed.

As Ross Garnaut said today, it’s not surprising that the talks broke down. Few reporters or officials had kind words to say about the conduct, management or organisation of the event itself. The chaotic conference on climate change was riven by serious disagreements long before the actual event in Denmark, and the conference proceedings themselves seem to have been badly mishandled by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. Strangely, the Danish Climate Change Minister who had been overseeing proceedings, Connie Hedegaard, resigned in the middle of the conference, with the role being taken over by Rasmussen.

Yes, there is an agreement, but it is a weak and incoherent one. Still, that may be the best we could have hoped for in these flawed negotiations. The giant meeting of world leaders in Denmark teetered on the brink of complete failure for nearly two weeks, and agreement was only reached at the eleventh hour by a 26-nation grouping, and in the end was essentially brokered by China and the US.

And China and the US are not yet ready to cut their emissions. China’s position is still that it will not agree to any absolute cuts in its emissions at all — merely a cut in the emission-intensity of its economy, which will be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of China’s future economic growth. Meanwhile, in the US, any action to cut emissions by the US is dependent on a vote in the Senate. Republicans remain viscerally opposed to cutting US emissions, and are currently also blocking healthcare reform legislation, which must be passed before the Senate will move on to the Waxman-Markey emissions trading bill. The US Senate contains several Democrats from coal-mining states like West Virginia that can be expected to vote against an emissions-trading bill, which will likely lead to the bill being voted down. Owing to an arcane rule about filibusters, the Democrats require votes from a cripplingly difficult 60 of the 100 Senators to pass legislation in the Senate.

The "Copenhagen Accord", signed by 26 world leaders, is also deeply inconsistent. It refers to a goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but doesn’t describe how the world will achieve it. Signatory nations are expected to state their emissions reduction targets in 2010, but as President Obama himself admitted, the targets currently on the table by the world’s governments don’t add up to anything like the reductions required.

It is true that, for the first time, big developing nations like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have agreed to reduce their emissions. In that sense, this new agreement does mark a real departure from the previous "two-track" Kyoto process, where "Annex I" developed nations were treated differently from developing nations. It is a real achievement, as perceptive commentators like the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Ben Cubby have noted. But actually nailing down the targets will be every bit as difficult as these talks were. And no one has solved the problem of how to enforce the reductions targets once agreed to. Canada, for instance, comprehensively failed to meet its Kyoto targets. Australia has not stuck to its Kyoto limits either — and we had negotiated an emissions increase.

It’s also true that the Accord sets in motion an important new source of funding for clean development and climate change mitigation in poorer countries. The figure of $100 billion a year has been floated. As Ban Ki-Moon has said, "$100 billion is significant big money". Whether this much money is actually paid is open to question, but it does look like some money will start to flow as early as next year. As the New York Times‘ James Kanter points out, this new fund may be "the most tangible outcome" of the agreement.

The failure of the talks, and Kevin Rudd’s prominent role in them, has sparked fierce criticism here in Australia.

For the Opposition, the chaos in Copenhagen only confirms what they have been saying all along: that we don’t need to rush an emissions trading scheme through, and that Kevin Rudd is a vainglorious attention-seeker. As Tony Abbott said over the weekend, "this just isn’t the real deal and it’s typical of Mr Rudd that we should have something which is basically all talk and no real action."

The Greens have been equally scathing. According to Greens Senator Christine Milne, "The Greens made the point last December that the woeful 5–15 per cent cuts offered by the Rudd Government would undermine global action and that is exactly what has come to pass." Just about the only defender of the Prime Minister currently is Tim Flannery, who quite reasonably pointed out that Rudd has worked very hard to keep the talks on track for most of this year.

It will be interesting to see whether Rudd suffers any punishment in the opinion polls in the wake of the disappointing Copenhagen result. I’m not sure he will. There’s no doubt that he and Penny Wong invested significant amounts of time, effort and political capital in a successful outcome. The circus in Denmark appears to confirm the Opposition’s criticism of the talks and of Rudd’s climate change policies, at least superficially. But the Opposition, as everyone knows, has its own problems on climate change. Currently, the Liberal Party doesn’t even have a formally announced policy on the issue.

Paradoxically, the electorate’s disengagement with the whole issue may help the Government. Most Australians aren’t interested in Copenhagen and don’t really understand what it was all about. For the average punter watching the television news, the Prime Minister is merely at another international media event. In an interview with Channel Nine news from the conference, Rudd talked in fairly prosaic terms about how the Accord was "important for Australia" and "in the national interest". For climate activists and those closely following the issue, it must have appeared anodyne, even hypocritical. But most watching would merely have seen their prime minister doing his job. So, while opposition to an emissions trading scheme continues to harden, it may not necessarily translate to softening support for the Government. As far as we can tell from the opinion polls, when voters do turn their minds to climate change, the issue is still a net winner for Labor.

With summer nearly upon us, politics will lurch into hiatus over the holiday break. Any lull will be deceptive, however. Labor’s strategists are already working hard on their plans for next year’s election. When the fray resumes in February, we will be straight into an informal election campaign. It will be fought on the economy as much as on climate change. Labor has a popular prime minister whose policies most voters appear to support. Tony Abbott starts this race a long, long way behind.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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