Australia & New Zealand’s Unsustainable International Climate Policies

By Ben Schaare

World leaders attend the G-20 in Brisbane, Australia hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and special guest John Key of New Zealand on November 15, 2014. Source: Number 10's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

World leaders attend the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, including special guest John Key of New Zealand on November 15, 2014. Source: Number 10’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The landmark, unexpected climate change agreement that China and the United States announced on November 12 is an ambitious step toward reducing global carbon emissions. The deal surprised Australia and New Zealand, and leaves their policies lagging behind international opinion on climate change.

Both countries have used inaction by the United States and China to justify conservative emissions reduction targets, and Australia and New Zealand now find themselves in increasingly awkward positions relative to the world’s largest carbon emitters. The fact that the United States and China, who together produce around 42 percent of global carbon emissions, set admirable emissions reduction targets raises expectations that states will commit to meaningful and binding reductions at the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 2015) to be held in Paris next year.

The United States pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, while China laid out its plan to “peak” carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and possibly sooner. To illustrate the magnitude of these targets, the United States will need to roughly double its current pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent to 2.3-2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025. China will need to add 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero emission energy production by 2030 to meet its goals.

In comparison, Australia’s emissions target is a 5 percent reduction from 2000 levels by 2020. New Zealand has an unconditional commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and will increase this reduction to between 10 and 20 percent if a comprehensive global agreement on climate change is reached. These commitments were uninspiring before the U.S.-China deal, and now seem all the more paltry. Worse, it seems Australia and New Zealand might not even be able to meet them.

Many question whether Australia can meet its reduction pledges given the repeal of the country’s carbon tax by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government in July and a dramatic reduction in climate related spending. The briefing to New Zealand’s incoming minister for the environment described the country’s climate change policy as “off track.” New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme, which prices carbon at $20 per ton, but agriculture, particularly dairy, is not subject to the scheme. The government faces continuing pressure to integrate the sector into the scheme, but has so far resisted.

As international attention turns to climate policy ahead of COP 2015, Australia and New Zealand will find themselves attracting an unusual and uncomfortable amount of negative press. Both are already facing diplomatic pressure to solidify significantly more ambitious reductions targets. Australia, as host of the Group of 20 summit that concluded on November 16, fought to keep climate change off the agenda, but abandoned that attempt in the face of U.S. and EU pressure. The final communiqué included strong language expressing a desire for a binding outcome at COP 2015, but according to European diplomats, getting the Australians on board was akin to “trench warfare.”

During the Group of 20 summit, U.S. president Barack Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe committed $3 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively, to the Green Climate Fund, which will help finance climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. While Prime Minister Abbott has ruled out Australian contributions, even its “climate policy ally” Canada indicated it will give to the fund. Australia’s divergence with global opinion on climate change may have been acceptable while its close friend the United States did not act, but following Obama’s very public policy shift, the Abbott government’s seemingly intractable position will become diplomatically unsustainable.

Continuing to fight or make only token commitments to address what many world leaders call the “defining challenge of our time” will tarnish Australia’s image. Obstructionist policy may result in Australia being left out of major climate initiatives, and by being outside the tent it will be unable to help craft global policies that align with its interests.

For its part, New Zealand has been hesitant in its climate change policy, particularly for a country that brands itself as “clean and green.” Roughly half of New Zealand’s total emissions come from dairy production in the form of methane produced by cows, and Prime Minister John Key has made the case that farmers should be exempt from paying for these emissions, as New Zealand is a global food producer. While this argument may appease his domestic base, it is unlikely to fly internationally, particularly with other large food producers.

Australia and New Zealand are also increasingly out of step with the Pacific Islands in regard to climate change. German chancellor Angela Merkel eloquently reminded them of this in a speech at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, saying that climate change “won’t stop at the Pacific Islands.” Given the existential threat that climate change poses for them, Pacific Island countries have vocally called for meaningful, binding emissions reduction targets, with some success. For instance, they achieved strong climate change statements at the Small Island Developing States Conference in Samoa in September 2014 and garnered significant support from world leaders at the September UN Climate Summit in New York. Countries in the region naturally look to Australia and New Zealand, and on the Pacific’s most crucial issue, both have space to provide stronger leadership.

Although both governments have forged strong positions on climate change, they face increasing international pressure to cement meaningful emissions reduction targets ahead of COP 2015. Australia and New Zealand are not averse to acting independently in their foreign affairs, but on a global issue such as climate change, sustaining policies which diverge too far from international consensus and diminish their moral authority is unsustainable.

Mr. Ben Schaare is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Follow him on twitter @bschaare_nz.

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1 comment for “Australia & New Zealand’s Unsustainable International Climate Policies

  1. December 4, 2014 at 15:20

    Australia’s post-2020 target will be announced sometime in 2015. If you take the 2005 base year that the US uses, then Australia’s target equates to a 12-13 percent reduction, more comparable to the US’s 2020 target of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels. NZ uses a base year of 1990, so who knows what that equates to if substituted with 2005.

    The US’s post-2020 target (just announced) is ambitious and a good signal. But can the US achieve it? The UNEP just named the US (along with Australia) as one of only four countries not on track to meet its 2020 target. Similarly, will the new Congress approve Obama’s $3 billion pledge to the GCF? That is highly unlikely and every other country in the world knows that. As for China’s announcement, it’s not news to anyone following this issue. Studies have shown that China’s emissions could peak in 2030 under current policies. Some studies even suggest a peak in 2025 could be possible.

    In any case, as the article points out, if the largest emitters (US and China) take the lead, then other countries can no longer hide behind them. That is a good thing in and of itself. But Australia and NZ will always be responsible and constructive players in international climate change talks. They have always been at the negotiating table and always will be, despite the political rhetoric of the leader of the day. The same can’t be said of the US – it carries a bigger burden. If the Administration changes after the next election, the world will lose a climate change leader.

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