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Howard vindicated on Kyoto strategy

By Alan Oxley - posted Friday, 31 December 2004


Non-government organisations (NGOs) arrived at the tenth annual UN climate change conference in Buenos Aires recently to celebrate the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. The party mood quickly turned sombre. The United States, China, India and the rest of the developing countries have taken over the UN climate process and sidelined the Kyoto Protocol. This means the Howard government is now in the international mainstream of climate change policy.

Russia’s ratification of Kyoto did two things: it brought Kyoto into effect but it also shifted the global focus away from Kyoto. The protocol’s commitments to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide last only until 2012.

The key question in Buenos Aires was what will we do after 2012? The EU ambition had been to get developing countries to accept commitments in a post-2012 Kyoto Protocol Mark II. On day one of the conference China unequivocally ruled that out, reflecting the view of all developing countries.

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To the dismay of the European Commission (and green NGOs) it quickly became clear that the US, China and the developing countries had teamed up to oppose any strategy for a Kyoto Mark II or any similar arrangement with binding commitments. Without something like that, there will also now not be any global system of trading credits for carbon dioxide emissions. To have credits to trade, countries have to limit production of carbon dioxide. That needs a global treaty. Unless the US, China, India and other developing countries change their mind, there will be none.

Overnight, the EU is suddenly no longer driving international climate change policy. This was symbolically demonstrated at the conference when Paula Dobriansky, the senior US State Department official, showcased US partnerships with other countries on projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the platform with her were representatives of China, India and Italy.

Italy subsequently fractured the EU position. It announced it would not support further binding commitments after 2012. It said it saw no point trying to extend Kyoto given that the US and the high-growth Asian economies will not support that strategy. The German Environment Minister in contrast stated that Germany would seek another set of binding commitments after 2012 in Kyoto. This is pointless. Developing countries will not agree.

The strategic significance is this great. Recall how the EU slammed US rejection of ratification of Kyoto as unilateralism which undermined the multilateral system. In Buenos Aires the Bush administration has practiced artful multilateral diplomacy, comprehensively outflanking the EU. The framework for determining international climate change policy is no longer based on the European world view, but on a Pacific world view. The US and China want climate change policies that do not undermine growth and that are rational.

The science used in the UN studies to justify global warming has been steadily unwinding over the last two years. The defenders have refused to engage, attacking instead the messengers. Developing countries evidently found the claims of calamity unconvincing. If they didn’t, why would they ignore them? Now that Kyoto has been pigeon-holed, the weaknesses in the claims about the science made in the UN climate change studies will be progressively aired. They are manifold.

The shift in paradigm even seems reflected in popular culture. While pro-Kyoto groups used stills from the movie The Day after Tomorrow to illustrate presentations in Buenos Aires, the US business group gleefully distributed flyers for Michael Crichton’s anti-global- warming book State of Fear, which has just been released.

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This is full vindication of the position taken on Kyoto by the Howard government. It has followed the US lead in focusing on practical policies to reduce emissions and avoid the economically damaging strategy of raising energy costs, as Kyoto requires. Staying out of Kyoto was always profoundly in our national interest. Australia is now comfortably in the climate change mainstream and regarded by the US, China and developing countries as a constructive contributor.

More importantly, Australia can continue to be a partner in economic growth with Asia and the US and not diminish our capacity to get the benefit of that growth by pricing our costs away from theirs with unjustifiable increases in our energy costs.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on  December 20, 2004.



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About the Author

Alan Oxley is the former ambassador to the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs and Chairman of the Australian APEC Studies Centre.

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