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Australia canít lead from behind on climate

By Don Henry - posted Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Under the heat of the pre-election spotlight, APEC’s Sydney declaration on climate change has been dressed up as historic progress. Most leaders heading home will see it as little more than a watered down compromise.

APEC’s failure to achieve even an “aspirational” target to cut greenhouse pollution has allowed President Bush retreat from his July G8 commitment to “consider seriously … at least a halving of global emissions by 2050”.

Just a week before APEC, a high-level United Nations meeting in Vienna concluded global emissions must be halved by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous climate change.


APEC has let the US go backwards and hasn’t helped China move forward.

In a nutshell, the APEC declaration was the end product of a collision of two positions: the push for voluntary, global commitments on climate and the drive towards mandatory targets, applied to developed countries ahead of developing countries.

Australia and the US have persistently argued for the voluntary model. When they rail against Kyoto, they are primarily opposing the protocol’s mandatory targets.

Australia and the US would have hoped to use APEC to build support for the proposal that voluntary measures form the basis for the post-2012 framework. And although they managed to squeeze in a commitment to “work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal”, they where also forced to “call for a post-2012 international climate change arrangement … that strengthens, broadens and deepens the current arrangements and leads to reduced global emissions of greenhouse gases”.

For “current arrangements” read “Kyoto Protocol” and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

If the language in the declaration was a bit subtle, the statements from China and Malaysia were not. Chinese President Hu Jintao was quoted as having told Prime Minister John Howard that the UN framework and the Kyoto Protocol were “the most authoritative, universal and comprehensive international framework” for tackling climate change.


And Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz suggested that Australia and the US lacked the credibility to lead discussions on climate change. “If you want to talk about climate change, please join in with the rest of the global community to make commitments about managing climate change … there’s no point talking outside of the (Kyoto) forum,” she said.

It’s not as if we don’t know what needs to be done about climate change. The science is saying if the world wants a better than one-in-four chance of avoiding dangerous climate change, global emissions must fall by at least 50 per cent by 2050.

I know we need better odds than that to guard against the long list of climate change impacts emerging from climate scientists around the world.

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About the Author

Don Henry is Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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