Is mindless planet-trashing the way to go?

The Morrison government is engaging in the kind of international chicanery we used to associate with tinpot dictatorships.

How the Morrison government is using Kyoto credits to avoid any significant action to reduce emissions. IMAGE: Tim Baxter (2019), In a Canter? Demystifying Australia’s Emissions Budget for Paris

When the United Nations emerged out of World War II, Australia was widely recognised as a model international citizen, a light helping to guide the world in a new age of diplomacy.

Civilisation’s answer to the wreckage left by nationalism was the UN’s multilateral world order. Both Coalition and Labor leaders knew that it gave a leg up to a middle-sized power like Australia, and worked hard to build our country’s reputation as a good global citizen.

Many older northern nations struggled with the new order, but Australia punched above its weight, notably in environmental advocacy. We led the world in pressing for UN measures to protect natural values in our part of the world, including the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

Our efforts were noticed. We secured the first UN presidency. UNESCO’s World Heritage committee held its first southern hemisphere meeting in Sydney, and the first Antarctic Treaty meeting was held in Canberra. We hosted the headquarters, in Hobart, of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

At the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992 Australia lobbied hard for the proposed framework convention on climate change and quickly ratified its agreement. Everyone expected as much. We had the reputation of taking a holistic view, supporting best collective outcomes.

But then something changed. Australia demanded special treatment at the 1997 Kyoto climate conference. Most developed countries agreed to lower their carbon emissions, but Australia was allowed a significant increase over 1990 levels.

That wasn’t all. At the eleventh hour, when delegates thought they had consensus, Australia insisted on an addition to the Kyoto Protocol, later dubbed the “Australia clause”, which drew on highly-favourable land-clearing data from 1990 to 1997 to give us an even greater advantage over others.

The concessions won by our wealthy, developed nation allowed us to increase emissions by 28 per cent between 1997 and 2012. In the final Kyoto commitment period to 2020 they have risen yet further. All the while our government could rightly claim it was meeting targets.

Those exceptional terms weren’t enough for John Howard, who believed we didn’t need a Kyoto Protocol and refused to ratify it. (That was finally done by Kevin Rudd.) Now, even the most tunnel-visioned Australian nationalist knows that Kyoto is a magic pudding that keeps on giving.

The Coalition is now taking yet another slice of that pudding. Unlike New Zealand, Germany, France, the UK and others, it will continue to draw on unused emission “credits” from the Kyoto era, which expires next year, to meet the modest 2030 target it set for itself in Paris four years ago.

With the exception of two brief years when a carbon price was in operation, emissions have continued to rise. So the Morrison government, like its predecessors, doesn’t mention them. Instead it refers repeatedly to “our target”, which we are meeting “in a canter”.

European countries that have actually brought down their emissions are accused by their citizens of doing too little, but Australia hasn’t really had to lift a finger. Now, delegates of leading developed countries at each UN climate conference greet us with suspicion, even hostility.

Anyone over 50 should know all about this brand of chicanery. For decades we saw it exercised repeatedly in international forums to stymy attempts to achieve accord on this or that issue. But it was always others doing it, never us.

It was climate policy that saw us cross to the other side in 1997. Australia has now been playing its Kyoto card for over 20 years, and shows no sign of ending the deception.

It wouldn’t matter if Australia was a small player – a Soviet-era throwback, maybe, or a minor dictatorship from Africa, the Middle East or Latin America. But we’re not – especially not in climate terms, where the physical size of a country counts almost as much as its population.

Pacific island countries place great store in climate conferences and multilateral aid. In December Scott Morrison decried those conferences as “all that sort of nonsense” and stopped Australian payments to the UN’s Green Climate Fund for vulnerable countries.

No wonder his offer to his Pacific “family” last month to redirect Australian foreign aid to rebuild island infrastructure was greeted with stony silence.

Sadly, our government is not alone in devaluing global obligations. Nationalists everywhere have long had multilateralism in their sights, if only for a bit of excitement. Now Brexit and Trumpism have given them the illusion that their narrow, simple-minded notions have substance after all.

In darker moments I find myself wondering if that’s how things are meant to be. Maybe the Morrison government is on to something. Maybe that thing we called civilisation was just a temporary aberration, and we were always more inclined to mindless, self-serving planet-trashing.

But what a crying shame that would be, after all we’ve done. Together.

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