For Obama's Climate Pact, There's Trouble Down Under
President Obama's climate pact with China is aimed at sparking a chain reaction. With the world's two biggest carbon culprits pledging to curb emissions, Obama is hoping to convince other countries to take similar steps. And the G20 economic talks—which start Friday and which Obama will attend—would appear to be fertile ground for inspiring such pledges.
But there's a problem: The talks are taking place in Brisbane, Australia—in a coal-producing country whose government just pulled the plug on the nation's carbon tax. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who led the repeal charge, has already said climate change won't be on the agenda. And he told reporters this week that he wasn't overly impressed with the U.S.-China climate deal, saying that he was focused on the "here and now."
"We are not talking about what might hypothetically happen 15, 20, 25, 30 years down the track," he said, promoting his nation's emissions pledge to cut 5 percent against 2000 levels by 2020.
That doesn't mean this week's landmark deal—under which the U.S. set emissions reduction targets out to 2025 and China agreed to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier—will go unnoted. An administration official told National Journal that Obama plans to talk up the agreement in meetings at the summit.
"We have frank discussions with all of our allies and partners, in which we stress the urgent need to address climate change with both ambitious domestic policies and a strong and effective international response," the official said, adding that Obama will "point to the U.S. and China post-2020 commitment to galvanize action."
That's likely going to be a tough sell for Abbott, who this summer became the first world leader to scale back a carbon price, engineering a repeal of Australia's carbon tax. Abbott is working to replace the carbon fee with a so-called "Direct Action" scheme, which would pay out $2.55 billion over four years to businesses, communities, and other entities to cut their carbon emissions (groups would apply and compete for funds).
Critics have blasted the replacement plan, saying that the heaviest polluters wouldn't have to participate and pointing to the support of mining billionaire and lawmaker Clive Palmer. Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins slammed the policy as a "Mickey Mouse scheme."
Abbott has also worked hard to promote Australia's robust coal and ore industry, saying at a mine opening last month, "Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world."
Australia is poised to become the world's largest coal exporter by 2030, according to projections released this week by the International Energy Agency. However, 13 percent of the country's coal exports go to China. It's unclear how the climate deal, which would boost the nation's use of renewables, will influence its coal use, but it could spell bad news for Australian producers. (Exports could also be weakened by Chinese tariffs on coal, but a free trade agreement with Australia could wipe those away.)
To mock Abbott's stance and try to force climate change onto the G20 agenda, more than 400 protesters this week buried their heads in the sand on the country's Bondi Beach. That's unlikely to move Abbott, who said in the spring that he didn't want the program to be "cluttered" with distractions to economic growth, although previous summits have touched on the environment.
Instead, the official agenda lists items like infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, modernizing international taxes, and "strengthening energy market resilience."
Sherri Goodman, the senior vice president of CNA, who has worked on military climate issues, said that G20 summits have been an "important forum" for environmental work and that she expected the China deal to be a talking point, whether in official context or in informal talks. "It certainly affects the overall climate of the meeting," Goodman said, adding it would play a role in every nation's economic future.
The weekend won't go without a climate announcement, however, since the U.S. is set to announce a $3 billion pledge to the U.N. Green Climate Fund. The contribution, expected at the summit ahead of a pledging conference in Berlin next week, will help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change and builds on the roughly $3 billion already pledged from countires like France, Germany and Korea.
Tellingly, at least one other country won't be chipping in to the fund, having refused to even back its creation. That leader? Abbott.