Saturday, September 08, 2007

Saturday Forum: The Sydney Declaration. Australia won't acknowledge the authority of the UN on climate change, but you should.

John Howard has spent his entire Prime Ministership resisting pressure to sign up to a climate change protocol negotiated through the United Nations.

His defining achievement at this weekend’s APEC summit might be a commitment to get his fellow world leaders to do just that.

It isn’t how the “Sydney Declaration” on climate change to be negotiated today was intended to turn out.

Howard intended it to vindicate his and the US President’s decision not to sign up to Kyoto.

The problem with the Kyoto protocol was variously said to be that it required nothing of big polluters such as China and that it lacked flexibility...

Without China and India (both exempted from the short-term need to meet pollution targets in the name of flexibility) Kyoto apparently wasn’t worth signing up to.

What was needed was a breakthrough - one that used APEC to end the standoff that John Howard and George Bush among others had helped create.

The Prime Minister outlined his planned Sydney Declaration in an address to the Lowy Institute and in radio interviews last week.

APEC would have the three largest emitters in the world “all present, that’s the United States, China and the Russian Federation, and the very fact that they comprise three out of 21 countries is itself a very good thing because 21 is a manageable number.”

By contrast the United Nations framework convention on climate change had proved to be unwieldy. “The UN meetings are so big that you can’t run a meeting of 146 people, you can’t have 146 people sitting around a table, whereas if you’ve got 21, I think we can make a bit of progress”.

And the UN framework convention had produced the Kyoto Protocol, which was ineffective because nations such as Australia would not submit themselves to it. “We are still essentially dealing with a world in which the basic functioning unit is the nation state and not some kind of super national body,” the Prime Minister said.

Today’s APEC leaders meeting would nut out the basis of a post-Kyoto Sydney Declaration that would be universally acceptable, in part because it would avoid hard and fast targets. The Prime Minister told the Lowy Institute that they would be replaced by “an agreed long-term aspirational goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions”.

For developed industrial countries such as Australia a shared “long-term aspirational goal” would be less demanding than a specific hard and fast target. On the other hand for developing economies including India and China it would be more demanding than Kyoto. It would at least commit them to something.

As the Prime Minister put it: “Kyoto divided the world into two groups, and required concerted action from only one of them”.

The US President was enthusiastic, telling the APEC business leaders meeting on Friday that “in order for there to be effective climate change policy, India and China need to be a part of the process. In order to get them in the process they have to be included in setting international goals.” He said that process would begin at APEC.

But even as he read those words George Bush probably recognised that the game was over. The world’s second-most important President, China’s President Hu Jintao killed it dead on Thursday.

Asked about the prospect of a Sydney declaration he said he supported the idea but added: “We very much hope that this Sydney declaration will give full expression to the position that the UN framework convention on climate change should remain the main channel for the international efforts to tackle climate change. It should also give full expression to the principles set in the convention, namely common, but differentiated responsibilities.”

In order for a Sydney Declaration to come out of today’s meeting it will have to extol the virtues of the UN process the Prime Minister has previously derided. It will have to commit the APEC leaders to sign up to the sort of agreement their host would not.

The signs are that they are keen to do so. In the months ahead George Bush himself will host a meeting in Washington to discuss the basis of a post-Kyoto UN framework convention agreement, the UN Secretary General will host another in New York and Indonesia will host one in Bali.

The Kyoto agreement expires in 2012. If Australia does want to be part of the next one (and it may commit itself to that along with other APEC nations in today’s Sydney Declaration) it will start at a disadvantage.

Australia did well in the negotiations that set up the Kyoto Protocol back in December 2006. It was one of the few countries that secured a target that allowed it to modestly increase its emissions through to 2008-2012 rather than cut them. Australia also secured a particularly generous interpretation of what constituted emissions, allowing it to define a slowing in its rate of deforestation as a cut in its emissions.

Then, prodded by the US President and by some sectors of Australian industry, it refused to ratify the protocol. It is unlikely to be so well treated in the negotiations to come.

The draft of the Sydney Declaration on Climate Change was being finalised last night. Stripped of what was to be its core, it is not certain what it will contain. China is understood to have succeeded in getting it to recognise the UN rather than meetings such as APEC as the main forum to debate climate change.

The Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, who was briefed on the negotiations said that “the general consensus was that it should be under the framework of the UN. That is also the position of China.”

Some of the remaining content is thought to deal with “energy intensity” - the amount of energy needed to produce economic growth – rather than carbon emissions as such.

Officials were rushing to complete an acceptable statement late yesterday knowing that it was needed for consideration today, before George Bush leaves the summit one day early at the end of Saturday’s talks. Should the officials not reach agreement, the content of the declaration will be left to the leaders themselves.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer confirmed yesterday that the climate change announcement would be called the “Sydney Declaration” and said it would be single most important thing to emerge from the leaders meeting.

As the two-day APEC leaders meeting gets underway at the Sydney Opera House today all the indications point to no big breakthroughs and no history-making announcements, despite the intentions inherent in the idea of a Sydney Declaration.

John Howard can take comfort from the knowledge that APEC meetings usually don’t result in breakthroughs. Reaching their conclusions via consensus, they are unlikely to come up with anything totally new. The one notable exception was the well-timed 1999 New Zealand summit which gathered support for the UN intervention in East Timor.

The achievements from this weekend’s leaders meeting are likely to be more subtle and perhaps more important.

The leaders will get reacquainted with each other and will be forced to consider each other’s positions. Some of them may have to yield a little on topics such as climate change. One of them may be this year’s host - John Howard.