A persistent argument of those wanting to drag their feet over climate change has been that small countries, this one included, should feel no obligation to act until the world's biggest economies do. After all, what impact could they make when China and the United States, which produce 45 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, were doing nothing? Those two nations had declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and, subsequently, had effectively torpedoed the 2009 Copenhagen summit. Now, that argument has become redundant. As much was confirmed by the US-China climate change pact signed last week and the communique from the G20 summit in Brisbane.
Plenty of the credit for this must go to President Barack Obama. At the start of this year, he indicated that he planned to use his regulatory authority to bypass Congress. The science on climate change was, he said, "now settled". By mid-year, the President had announced American power stations would have to cut their carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020. This was particularly brave given the obvious problem for Democrat candidates in coal-burning states in this month's mid-term congressional elections.
President Obama has followed this up with plans to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2025. That equates to a doubling of America's previous dawdling approach. China, for its part, is testing emissions trading schemes, seeking peak emissions by 2030, and plans 20 per cent of its energy will come from renewable sources by that date.
The deal between the two nations is non-binding but hugely symbolic. The change of attitude that it represents was confirmed by the G20 communique. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, completely misread the mood of most of the G20 members and attempted to sideline climate change. His efforts misfired. A key element of the communique includes a commitment to address climate change, including communicating post-2020 domestic climate targets as soon as possible, and preferably by the first quarter of next year.
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This places pressure on countries to reveal their environmental targets well ahead of a climate change summit in Paris in December 2015. The discomfort for Australia did not end there. After much wrangling, the communique also included an agreement to commit funds to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund, which is designed to help poor nations combat climate change. Mr Abbott has referred to this as "socialism masquerading as environmentalism". G20 members were also advised to "rationalise and phase out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies".
Reports from the summit suggested the discussions on climate change that shaped the communique's wording were particularly intense. Australia was supported by Canada and Saudi Arabia. Leading the majority camp were the US and the European Union. One EU official talked of "trench warfare". That makes the outcome even more significant. It also improves the chances of a global agreement at the Paris summit.
During the global financial crisis, there was a ready excuse for countries to do nothing. An environmental catastrophe seemed to be something that could be tackled sometime in the future. But improved economic circumstances and successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have wrought a substantial change of attitude.
Australia's embarrassment carries a message for this country. New Zealand has relinquished international credibility by diluting its emissions trading scheme and hopping on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now, however, the excuses for doing very little are evaporating.
The Government should be demonstrating a far greater urge to be part of the solution, not an increasingly isolated slow coach.
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