Over the last week Australia signalled to the international community that we will abandon our status as a mid-table player in international efforts to tackle global warming. Instead, in two forums – the UNFCCC talks in Poland, and the CHOGM meeting in Sri Lanka – we have taken up the role of active wrecker.
Australia has moved to actively undermine international climate funds aimed at helping poor and developing countries adapt to life in a carbon constrained international environment. The funds were also meant to help them adapt to disasters flowing from climate change, like Typhoon Haiyan.
In Poland, Australia has walked back on commitments to equitably contribute any further funding to the Green Fund, which is focused on reducing the risk the world’s poor face from increasingly severe extreme weather. At CHOGM Australia joined with Canada in rejecting moves by the Commonwealth – 53 nations in all – to establish a fund focused on helping vulnerable island states and poor African countries address the effects of climate change related problems like rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, and catastrophic weather incidents.
It is hard to overemphasise how important commitments to these funds are. Such contributions are just and equitable – richer nations should help poorer nations in the face of horrific natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan.
Contributing to the Green Fund is not "socialism masquerading as environmentalism", as the Coalition cabinet is reported to believe. It is in Australia's national interest to do so; poor neighbours being ravaged by extreme weather are a drag on all regional economies. The Green Fund is not pure largesse; it was set up after much negotiation and hard-fought compromise.
Most people live in relatively low-polluting developing economies. Development requires energy and at present fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy — coal in particular. If the globe is to avoid dangerous climate change, the third world must build as little long-lived coal fired power generation capacity as possible. Rich nations like Australia have asked poorer countries – India for instance – to develop in ways that do not require the burning of coal.
Developing countries see these requests from richer nations as deeply iniquitous. They ask why poorer countries should be prevented from developing in the same pollution intensive ways that have made countries like Australia and the USA so rich.
Green funds and associated international climate related finance initiatives are attempts to broker compromise, where poorer nations are given support to help their more exposed citizens, and to develop their economies in less polluting ways.
To see the importance of such schemes, consider India. While it is growing at a remarkable rate, India is poor. It has around 50 times the population of Australia, but India's GDP is only marginally more than ours. The pressure on the Indian government to develop its economy is intense.
This has led to energy poverty, with demand comfortably outstripping supply. The government response has been to promote a massive coal fired power station building effort, with many facilities fuelled by the dirtiest source of energy, brown coal (which India possesses in relative abundance). Between 2007 and 2012, coal fired power generation capacity in India increased by around 80 per cent.
Here’s the scary statistic: at present, the average Indian creates 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution a year. If India’s economy develops in line with the way in which Australia’s has – if per capita pollution increases to 20 tonnes per capita – then annual global pollution outputs will double.
The attendant risks of such an increase in pollution are untenable. They would mean some of the more dire predictions could well come true; increased bushfire weather, heatwaves on the east coast, risks to food security, climate refugees from sunken Pacific islands.
We can’t afford that. It is in Australia’s national interest to participate in the types of international efforts that are precisely structured in order to help India – and like economies – develop in ways that mean that we don’t have to face up to such an inhospitable, unpleasant future.
It is important that Australia play a constructive role in international negotiations, and that we once again open our ears to the needs of the developing world. Australians need to demand it of our government. This is too important an issue to allow domestic political posturing to cloud decision making.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.