Australia isolated at Nairobi climate meeting

Saturday, December 2, 2006

As annual negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol were about to begin on November 7 in Nairobi, Kenya, Senator Ian Campbell, federal environment minister, claimed that the Kyoto signatories had agreed that a new agreement was necessary as the old agreement was not working. Campbell asserted that Australia would be going to Nairobi to begin negotiations on a "New Kyoto".

But the only time "New Kyoto" rated a mention at Nairobi was in Campbell's four-minute "high level statement" to a near-empty room on November 15. The real intention of his media stunt was to pretend that the Howard government was participating in Nairobi.

Canberra's participation in Kyoto is limited to one senior public servant, Howard Bamsey, who co-chairs the "Dialogue on long-term cooperative action to address climate change by enhancing implementation of the Convention", or the "Dialogue". This two-year process began in 2005 at the UN climate talks in Montreal, Canada. The Dialogue is a forum to discuss ideas that, explicitly, will not result in any binding agreements on climate change. Australia's role in chairing this committee does little to develop future Kyoto Protocol agreements.

Yet again, the Howard government was completely out of step with the other 168 nations that have ratified Kyoto and are committed to thrashing out emissions' reduction steps, technology transfers and adaptation funding for phase two, which starts after 2012.

The Howard government's main criticism of Kyoto is focused on the lack of emission reduction commitments by rapidly industrialising countries such as China. This is despite the fact that, on a per capita basis, Australia remains the highest in the world, at 27 tonnes per person. By contrast, China's per capita emissions are three tonnes. China has committed to reducing its emissions with an ambitious mandatory renewable energy target of 15% by 2020, which vastly overshadows Australia's paltry 2% target by 2010.

The Kyoto Protocol has reached a sensitive stage as countries prepare for a new round of commitments for the post-2012 period. Climate science has greatly improved since the first Kyoto commitments were negotiated, which means that countries must radically upscale the level of emission reductions and invest in adaptation strategies for vulnerable nations.

Despite warnings about impending climate change disaster such as the Stern Review on the Economic Impacts of Climate Change that identifies Australia as the most vulnerable developed nation to climate change, Howard's policies remain woefully inadequate. The Stern review estimated that unabated climate change over the coming century will result in $3 trillion in losses and damages. The World Bank has estimated that climate change will result in $10-$40 billion in damages alone each year. It concludes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be cheaper than absorbing the costs of the impacts of climate change. Considering that the Howard government has already spent more than $1 billion in drought relief for farmers this year, the massive costs associated with global warming should be motivation enough to ratify Kyoto.

Indonesian spokespeople told the Nairobi conference that 200 islands are at risk of rising seas: 100 million people — half the population — could be displaced by 2050-2070. Representatives of the Maasai peoples, nomadic herders who live on the Northern Kenya plains, reported that the past three years of drought has led to 10 million head of cattle dying. Without cattle, the Maasai are without food and an income.

Australia was not unique in ignoring the significance of the Stern review and how climate change is devastating the livelihoods of communities across Africa. It was also disappointing that work on a thorough review of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol had not been completed, and that initial emissions reduction figures for industrialised countries were not tabled.

Industrialised nations must be prepared to accept emissions' reduction targets of 30% by 2020, and as much as 90% by 2050. Countries of the global South, that are not responsible for human-induced climate change, are making an effort to reduce the greenhouse intensity of their economic growth and development. They must be compensated by adaptation funds from the West.

These obligations can, and must, be packaged into the post-2012 phase of Kyoto. Unless governments meet the greenhouse gas stabilisation targets of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ecosystems, food security and sustainable development will be threatened.

[Stephanie Long is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth International and was in Nairobi for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, November 6-17.]