AUSTRALIAN prime minister Tony Abbott, who rose to power by opposing a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, is finding his country isolated on climate change as the US China and other nations signal new momentum for action.
Mr Abbott tried and failed to keep the issue off the agenda of the annual G20 summit of wealthy and emerging countries that was hosted by the city of Brisbane in mid-November.
An agreement between Washington and Beijing to curb emissions, announced days before the summit, suggests he misjudged the international mood on the issue. Next week, attention turns to the next round of climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru.
For a nation of just 23 million, Australia has played a significant role in past talks, but this time it is unclear what kind of role its delegation, led by foreign minister Julie Bishop, will play.
Mr Abbott’s conservative coalition won a landslide election victory last year over the Labour Party, which had grown unpopular in part because it had approved one of the world’s highest taxes on major carbon gas polluters. Mr Abbott ended that tax and years earlier helped scuttle an effort by his own Liberal Party to reach a bipartisan deal on a carbon-trading scheme, intended to encourage industries to produce less emissions.
G20 heavyweights including the US and Europe steamrolled Australia’s efforts as summit host to keep climate change off the agenda in Brisbane.
The G20 agreed to work towards a global agreement on reducing carbon gas emissions at a major United Nations climate change conference in Paris in September.
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The Lima meeting is the final high-level ministerial summit in which countries will aim to work toward a draft agreement to be presented in Paris.
An EU official described getting Australia to agree to the wording of a paragraph on climate change in the G20 summit communiqué as slow-moving “trench warfare.” In arguing for keeping climate change off the G20 agenda, Australia said it was not strictly an economic issue and would distract from goals including a plan to boost global GDP by more than £1.2 trillion over five years.
US president Barack Obama upset some in Mr Abbott’s administration when he said that among Asia-Pacific nations, “nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change” than Australia.
“Here in Australia it means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened,” he said.
Ms Bishop said she was “surprised” by Mr Obama’s speech and later wrote to him, outlining Australian measures to protect the World Heritage-listed coral reef and assuring its preservation for generations to come. The Labour opposition described the government response to the speech as petulant.
Mr Obama also used his speech in Brisbane to pledge $3 billion (£1.9bn) to the Green Climate Fund, an UN initiative set up to support developing nations dealing with rising seas, higher temperatures and extreme weather events.
A previous Australian Labour Party government played a leading role in establishing the fund, which has received close to £6.3bn in pledges from more than 20 countries.
Australia has not offered money, although it says some of its foreign aid budget is spent on climate change mitigation.
Swedish climate ambassador Anna Lindstedt, who will be part of her country’s delegation at the talks in Lima, said Australia’s reluctance to contribute to the fund has created a “negative dynamic” in negotiations with large developing countries, including China.
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