Is Glasgow asking Australia to commit to the impossible?

Australia is accustomed to difficult international negotiations. Climate change negotiations are no exception.

The mantra of Australian foreign policy runs as follows: Australia is a middle power; it has an overriding interest in a rules-based international system that constrains hegemons and would-be hegemons; in contrast to other states, it therefore takes seriously and seeks to honour commitments entered into, setting an example it expects to be followed; this makes it therefore a hard-nosed negotiator that is careful as to what it agrees to.

This is not always the case with other nations, where the observation of Joseph Weiler in 1988 regarding international negotiations seems to apply – those least likely to implement are often the first to agree.

The intentions of negotiators might be honourable, and this tendency can assist a conclusion to negotiations being reached – something that is difficult in a multilateral process with a large number of parties. Former US diplomat George F. Kennan once remarked that the unlikelihood of a negotiation reaching agreement grows by the square of the number of parties taking part, so it might appear that such factors might be functional, along with what is known as ‘creative ambiguity’.

But there is a history of states sending delegations to the negotiation of multilateral environmental agreements that are (in contrast to Australia) either dominated by members of environment agencies or even comprised solely of such individuals. Upon return, Treasuries and economic agencies are not always as enamoured with what has a been agreed – usually in a frenzied late night final session where sleep deprivation doesn’t always make for clear, rational thought. And creative ambiguity leaves wriggle room for states, the level at which implementation must occur – just as it does with the implementation of domestic policy.

This requires that Australia and other states that take their obligations seriously pay particular attention to what is agreed to, especially because other states parties are more likely to push agendas and honour outcomes that accord with their interests.

So it was with the European Union at Kyoto in 1997, where it was able to bundle up the post-1990 reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the ‘European Bubble’ (or Burden Sharing Agreement) and allow some member states to enjoy increases in emissions. (Greta Thunberg’s home state of Sweden, for example, was allowed an increase for its proposed phase-out of nuclear energy, without incurring a single ‘How Dare You!’).

It’s not as if Europe worked hard to create the surplus for the likes of Sweden to share. The surplus had two basic origins. One was the ‘Dash for Gas’ that occurred in the United Kingdom after 1990 when Margaret Thatcher finally did the National Union of Miners in, privatising the Central Electricity Generating Board – with the EU assisting by relaxing restrictions on the use of natural gas for electricity generation. The higher cost of capital in the private sector led to widespread replacement of coal-fired generation by less capital intensive Combined Cycle Gas Turbines, and a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per kWh.

The other element was the ‘wallfall’ that followed the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. In the case of Germany, reunification of East and West in October 1990 was followed by the collapse of East German industrial output and the carbon-intensive lignite (brown coal) on which it depended. Accession of other former Communist states brought with them reductions, in what Australia’s negotiators referred to as the ‘Magic Pudding’.

The EU thus met its Kyoto target with ease – practically before it was set – and it proceeded to assume the high moral ground and lecture those like Australia that had a different set of interests. For example, Australia had cheap, clean coal; Germany was paying around DM12 billion (€24 billion) annually to subsidise coal production, so saw the climate change problem differently. (Indeed, the then German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had in the late 1980s talked up the problem to wedge the Greens and Social Democrats who were pushing for a nuclear phase-out after Chernobyl, to be replaced by coal).

Behind all the high-sounding talk about ‘saving the planet’, in other words, important interests are at stake.

For all the claims that global climate policy is based on ‘The Science’, key elements of the negotiating discourse – including ‘Net Zero’ and even the 2°C goal of the Paris Agreement – are based on politics that Australia has had little role in defining.

It is further important to note that the International Energy Agency has concluded that ‘Net Zero by 2050’ cannot be achieved with existing technology.

The Prime Minister therefore needs to be careful in considering signing up to such a target. Not only does it jeopardise the nation’s interests, especially its comparative advantage in cheap, high quality coal, but it puts at risk its long-standing mantra of delivering on what it signs up for.

If the IEA is correct, to accept Net Zero by 2050 as a goal would be to accept the unachievable, and promise to meet it.