The case for bipartisanship on Kyoto

Given the bruising carbon price debate, most people would think it mad to suggest that Australia’s next big decision on climate policy can and should receive bipartisan support. But there’s a convincing case for this to happen, as both sides of politics look beyond the rhetoric.

Phase one of the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in December this year and countries are now being asked to sign on to new targets for a second commitment period which will kick-off in 2013.

While the decision on the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol is ultimately one for the government, it is also an important test for the Opposition’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Since signing the original Kyoto Protocol in 2007, global action on climate change has grown substantially, indicating the increasing prioritisation of this issue among many nations.

Since 2007 the global market for clean energy has grown by 70 per cent and is now worth around $260 billion annually. In 2011 more money was invested in renewable energy than fossil fuel power sources, like coal and gas.

National carbon pricing schemes are now in place in thirty-four countries, with sub-national schemes also in place in the US and Canada. China aims to have a national emissions trading scheme in place by 2016 and next year will begin pilot schemes in seven cities and provinces, which together account for around a quarter of China’s economic output. South Korea – Australia’s third largest market for coal exports – has also passed laws that will see a national carbon price in place from 2015.

The UN climate change negotiations have progressed since 2007. All major emitting economies have now formally registered 2020 pollution reduction targets with the UN. Importantly, this includes both the US and China, who have joined others – including Australia – in implementing these targets through national laws.

Despite their differences on the carbon price, both the government and the Coalition agree we need a coordinated global effort if we are to curb carbon pollution and prevent dangerous levels of global warming. And that’s what this decision on Kyoto2 is all about – Australia contributing to a stronger and more effective global fix.

Last year’s UN Climate Summit in Durban put this goal within reach, with countries agreeing to have a new global treaty in place by 2015 and in force by 2020, which will including binding targets for all major economies, including big developing countries like China and India.

A key part of the deal struck in Durban was an agreement to launch Kyoto2 in 2013, providing a legal and political bridge between the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period and a new treaty being in place.

Australia’s participation will help generate trust and bolster international negotiations aimed at finalising a new legally binding agreement covering all countries by 2015.

Conversely, refusing to sign up to Kyoto2 will be viewed as a betrayal of the breakthrough deal struck at last year’s Durban climate summit, and will undermine Australia’s own goal of seeing a new treaty established as soon as possible.

The Kyoto Protocol remains the legal backbone of international efforts on climate change. While not perfect, these rules provide investors and policymakers with a framework to work within.

The new treaty may produce better rules, but in the meantime we’d be mad to throw the baby out with the bathwater by stepping away from the Kyoto Protocol.      

As well as affecting Australia’s reputation as a good global citizen, the position that the government and the Coalition take on Kyoto2 will also test their credibility on climate change amongst voters.

For the government, Kyoto2 should be a no-brainer. This is because the carbon price and associated policies provide a legal framework to meet any future international obligations. This means there are no downsides to joining Kyoto2.

For the Coalition, supporting Kyoto2 will send a clear message to Australian voters that, while they oppose the carbon price, they remain committed to tackling climate change and are prepared to be bound to this commitment under international law. On the other hand, opposing Kyoto2 would call into question their pledge to reduce emissions by at least 5 per cent by 2020.

Will McGoldrick is Climate Change Policy Manager at WWF-Australia. He specialises in international climate change policy and law and has participated in the UN climate negotiations both as a government representative and non-government observer.

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