At Bonn, Australia obstructs climate justice

Climate action demonstration in Bonn, November 4. Photo: Takver/flickr.

Australia’s behaviour at the UN Climate Conference in Bonn (COP23) has been described as that of a bully. Australia has collected a swag of “Fossil of the Day” awards — given daily by climate activists to the country or group doing its best to stop effective action on climate change.

Australia, along with the US, has been disgracing itself in one of the most contentious areas of the climate talks, known as Loss and Damage. Other developed countries, particularly the European Union and Canada, have not been very helpful either.

Loss and Damage

Loss and Damage is an essential element of climate justice. It goes beyond the traditional areas of climate aid: mitigation (cutting carbon emissions); and adaptation (improving resilience to climate impacts). Loss and Damage is about recognising that poorer countries will disproportionately bear the costs of climate change impacts, such as extreme weather events, sea level rise and desertification. Yet these poorer countries have contributed very little to the problem.

We know the world is increasingly facing climate-related disasters and poorer countries typically suffer worse impacts. This is partly due to location: many poorer countries are in the tropics, which are more vulnerable to extreme weather events. It is also because poorer countries may not have adequate infrastructure to cope with disasters and when they strike, may not have the resources to recover and rebuild. Of course, the level of equality within a country makes a huge difference — witness Cuba, which copes relatively well with disasters.

There is a moral obligation for richer countries to provide financial compensation to these countries for the loss and damage caused by climate-related disasters, not only because poorer countries are less able to cope, but also because richer countries have, in effect, inflicted these disasters on them.


The idea that developing countries should receive compensation for the loss and damage caused by climate change was first raised, unsuccessfully, by Vanuatu in 1991. Over time, many countries have been hit by extreme weather events, so the issue has become increasingly prominent.

In 2013, the UN climate conference adopted the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. This consists of a panel of 10 developing and 10 developed countries, which meets twice a year. It is supposed to produce a technical paper by 2019.

The 2015 Paris Agreement recognises Loss and Damage. However, the richest countries, particularly the US, insisted on the stipulation that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. Instead, the agreement talks about “support” and uses non-binding language.

Efforts to secure a better deal on Loss and Damage have continued during COP23. This has been pursued by the G77, an alliance at the United Nations, 134  developing countries.

The G77 had some simple asks: Loss and Damage to be a permanent agenda item at these discussions; sufficient resources be provided for the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage to function properly; and there be a means of raising funds for Loss and Damage. 

But thanks to obstruction by developed countries, particularly Australia and the US, these attempts were thwarted. Since the climate talks work on achieving consensus, one or two countries can block the aspirations of the vast majority. So the Loss and Damage text released by the negotiators was very weak. There will be a single Expert Dialogue in May next year.

Meanwhile, insurance has been promoted as the solution to address Loss and Damage. An initiative called InsuResilience was launched with the aim of providing insurance to an extra 400 million poor people who are vulnerable to climate disasters.

Harjeet Singh from ActionAid noted, insurance is promoted because it provides a business opportunity for richer countries. It is also problematic to expect poorer countries to insure themselves against climate change impacts, when the problem was created in the main by richer countries.

A small victory for the G77 was getting the “increasing frequency and severity of climate-related disasters” mentioned in the draft text on Loss and Damage. But Australia even caused a fuss about these words, questioning whether such disasters were actually due to climate change. 

Serial obstructers

Australia and the US have a long history of working together to obstruct climate action. These two countries refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, although former PM Kevin Rudd rectified that in 2007. Since 2015 all countries have signed the Paris Agreement, but the US has announced its intention to withdraw from it.

As one G77 negotiator told me, last year everyone was shocked by the election of Donald Trump and worried about the effect of this on the Paris Agreement. Now they just wish the US could leave, instead of staying around to obstruct progress. Indeed, if and when the US does leave, it will be interesting to see if Australia’s bullying ways could be tamed.

Australia’s antics are particularly concerning because Australia claims to be supporting Fiji, which is chairing these climate talks, the first Pacific Island nation to do so. Fiji’s legacy is therefore at stake. If these talks are seen to fail on a key issue, it will adversely affect Australia’s relationship with its neighbouring countries.

In the final days of COP23, the ministers of countries are negotiating the final text, so there will be pressure on Australia to be a little more accommodating to the needs of poorer countries.

Support for coal

Minister for Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg spoke at three events at the Bonn talks, all focused on promoting Australia’s activities on land-use emissions.

Sequestering carbon on land and coastal areas is important, if it is additional to slashing emissions from fossil fuels. But the Australian government regards it as a way of offsetting fossil fuel emissions.

When asked why Australia was still enthusiastically supporting the coal industry, Frydenberg said he made “no apologies for supporting jobs and investment in Australia” in coalmining. With that attitude, Australia can be assured of more Fossil of the Day awards at next year’s climate talks.

[Andrea Bunting is a Melbourne-based climate activist. She is part of the Climate Action Network Australia delegation at COP23.]

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