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Australia's climate change obligations

By Andrew Hewett - posted Tuesday, 20 November 2007

For the first time in many years, overseas aid has been elevated to the spotlight during an election campaign, highlighting Australia’s potential to play a pivotal role in transforming our region and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Yet, while headlines have focused on how much aid the parties have, or have not, committed to give in eight years’ time, a victorious Howard or Rudd Government will face its first major test on international development and climate change just ten days after the election.

On 3 December, government delegations from around the world will descend on Bali for the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change. The significance of this meeting lies in the reality that there is now broad political will to kick-start negotiations for a post-2012 climate agreement.


Sadly, Australia – one of two countries not to have ratified Kyoto – is yet to give a clear mandate for the negotiation of a post-2012 climate treaty.

Yet, it is during the period of a post-2012 treaty that global emissions must peak and then begin to decline in order to avoid dangerous climate change.  Failing to negotiate such an agreement would have a profound impact on humanity and our shared environment and is simply not an option.

The science is clear: even if global emissions are cut rapidly from today, the impacts of climate change will continue to worsen until at least 2030 and these impacts will be borne most heavily by the world’s poorest countries.

Therein lies the deep injustice of climate change – the countries which have contributed least to the problem will be, and already are, worst affected. On the other hand, rich countries like Australia that are responsible for many decades of greenhouse gas emissions continue to disproportionately reap the benefits of fossil fuel-dependent growth.

In our own region, Carteret Islanders in PNG have watched their shore line recede and are no longer able to grow their crop, due to encroachment of the sea.  More than 2000 are now trying to relocate to Bougainville. Similarly, in Tuvalu, strong winds and high tides regularly crash through damaged sea walls, bringing waves and debris onto the land and inundating homes.

Further afield, rising temperatures in Bolivia are increasing the incidence and intensity of forest fires and damaging agriculture, while changed rainfall patterns in Niger have contributed to increased desertification, massive losses in livestock and chronic food insecurity.


These countries, and many others, need urgent assistance to enable them to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  Oxfam calculates this assistance required by developing countries will cost $54 billion a year - and far more if global emissions are not cut fast enough.

Australia’s fair share of this global amount is around $1.5 billion. Yet, to date, we have pledged a mere $6.3 million – the amount Australians spend on air-conditioners and desk fans every two days.

In its climate change plan, Labor has committed to lift adaptation assistance for developing countries to $150 million a year.  This is a welcome initiative but will take Australia’s contribution to just one tenth of our fair share.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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