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Australia PM’s resistance to climate action isolated country at G-20

Analysis: G-20 created momentum for climate change pact despite Australian resistance to addressing issue

Momentum for an international agreement on combating climate change at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris gained pace last weekend at the annual G-20 summit despite resistance from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

As the host nation, Australia defied pressure to include climate change as an agenda item — a move criticized by some of the world’s most influential leaders.

While the meetings, which bring together the heads of some of the world’s largest global economies, achieved the objectives of reaching consensus on increasing global economic growth and new regulations on international tax avoidance, they were overshadowed by pressure on Australia to do more to address climate change.

Abbott has questioned the scientific consensus of human-caused global temperature change, although in June he said that he takes climate change "very seriously," and defended Australia's tackling of climate change as "substantial" in global terms.

On the sidelines of the G-20, U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron publicly rebuked Canberra for its stance on the need for significant action.

Obama called on young Australians to “raise their voices” on the issue and warned of the effects of extreme weather events in Australia during a speech to university students. “No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part,” he said.

Days before the summit, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement to reduce and cap emissions. Abbott wrote off the deal between the world’s two largest CO2 polluters — hailed by many — as something that “might happen in 16 years’ time.”

Mike Callaghan, an analyst at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, said Australia appeared to lose control of the G-20 agenda and should have greeted the China-U.S. announcement with a positive message leading into the 2015 conference in Paris.

“If this was the message, then the important agreement between China and the U.S. on emissions targets would have added to the success of the Brisbane summit rather than climate change overtaking the G-20 summit against Australia’s wishes,” he said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the chorus urging greater action, describing climate change as “the defining issue of our time.” He called on G-20 nations to make significant contributions to the Green Climate Fund, established to assist developing nations in adapting to the effects of climate change. The U.S. and Japan pledged $4.5 billion to the fund.

Abbott, meanwhile, told a meeting of the leaders he would be “standing up for coal,” according to British newspaper The Guardian. Coal is one of the world’s leading sources of carbon emissions and a significant export commodity in Australia. In October he described the coal industry as “good for humanity.”

On Thursday hundreds of protesters gathered to symbolically bury their heads in the sands of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach in protest of Canberra’s climate change policies. Since forming a government in September 2013, Abbott has repealed the country’s carbon tax, slashed funding to government agencies tasked with promoting renewable energy and the environment and abolished the Climate Commission.

The government’s centerpiece environmental policy is the establishment of a $2 billion fund to pay polluters to cut emissions in order to help Australia reach its modest carbon reduction target of a 5 percent reduction from 2000 levels by 2020.

The China-U.S. announcement commits China to peak carbon emissions and increase the percentage of noncarbon fuel sources to 20 percent of energy production by 2030. The U.S. has undertaken to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.

Australia's stance on climate change has made it an outsider on the international stage, said Peter Christoff, an expert in climate change policy at the University of Melbourne.

“Australia is now seen to be stranded with an anachronistic policy and an anachronistic mindset,” he said. “We are out of step with the rest of the world. The response to our chairing the G-20 would be to see Australia now as obstructive at best or destructive at worst.”

The U.S.-China agreement, combined with contributions to the Green Climate Fund made during the G-20, has created strong momentum for a global deal on climate change, according to Christoff.

“Copenhagen 2009 failed largely because of a lack of understanding between the U.S. and China, so moving towards Paris in 2015, this announcement provides the promise for an agreement,” he said. “The Green Climate Fund is directed toward adaptation. The donations over the G-20 were entirely appropriate contributions. They are essentially buying the participation of developing countries unable to contribute to fighting the effects of climate change.”

Should Australia seek to impede consensus at Paris it will be looking for “friends in dark places,” said Christoff, in an obstructionist bloc with Canada, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf countries.

“Most Australians would be disappointed to hear we are so out of step with the world on an issue that will affect all Australians’ future,” said Amanda McKenzie, chief executive of the Climate Council, which was established from private donations to provide independent information on climate change after the Abbott government withdrew funding for the Climate Commission.

McKenzie said Australia was already feeling the effects of climate change in the increased number of extreme weather events such as heat waves and wildfires. More than $200 billion of public infrastructure and private assets are at risk from rising sea levels.

“Australia is the sunniest country in the world and one of the windiest. There are enormous economic opportunities for Australia in tackling climate change, and Australian scientists have been at the forefront of solar technology,” she said. 

Australia maintains a network of subsidies directed at the mining industry, which directly or indirectly received $15 billion in state funds over the past six years. The coal industry is one of the major beneficiaries of such largess, but according to McKenzie, despite Abbott’s resistance, a shift toward sustainable energy sources is unavoidable.

“A global transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy is inevitable. To protect our nation from climate change, the science clearly tells us that the majority of the world’s coal must stay in the ground,” she said.

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