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“We must not fail. Success in Copenhagen is in sight. We must seize the moment to seal the deal.” – UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon, November 2009
The chances of a successful outcome in Copenhagen have been given a big boost with the news that US President Barack Obama will attend the United Nations climate change talks – not in the first week, as announced a couple of weeks ago, but in the crucial final days of the negotiations.
President Obama would not be going to Copenhagen at the business end of the talks unless he wanted to push hard for success.
Our Prime Minister will be there too and will be a ‘friend of the Chair’, as requested by the Danish PM.
There could hardly be more at stake for Australia.
As we head into what will probably be another scorching summer many Australians are acutely aware of the likelihood of bushfires in the south, cyclones in the north and water shortages in many towns and cities across the country.
These realities of summer in Australia are becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change.
Forging a strong global agreement to cut greenhouse pollution and avoid dangerous climate change is undoubtedly in Australia’s national interest.
In fact, the Copenhagen conference could be the most important meeting ever for our country’s future.
How can we make sure this conference is not just another talk fest? How can we make sure it is more than just a diplomatic or political success? How can we make sure it is a success for the climate?
And how can Australia play a significant role when the problem we’re talking about is as big as the entire Earth’s atmosphere?
History shows Australia played an important leadership role in another important UN treaty about our atmosphere.
The Montreal Protocol was established in the 1980s to protect the ozone layer by limiting the release of ozone depleting gases.
Australia was a key player in phasing out the ozone depleting substances used in refrigeration, fire safety and fumigation, and in providing funding to help developing countries do the same.
Scientists believe the hole in the ozone layer will repair over time because of this international agreement.
Australia can be a leader at Copenhagen too, even though the challenges of securing an environmentally effective deal at Copenhagen are far greater and more complex than those faced by the negotiators of the Montreal Protocol.
Copenhagen will not be the end of the quest to avoid dangerous climate change. But the more progress can be made at Copenhagen, the less will have to be pushed into extra time.
So what can we hope for in Copenhagen?
First, we need to see very strong commitments from developed countries to cut their emissions and developing countries need to start playing their role.
The world’s top climate scientists say developed countries as a group need to cut their emissions by 25–40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 if we want to have a chance of avoiding average global temperatures increasing more than 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. The most recent science is indicating we are likely to need to do more.
Australia’s share of this range is a cut of at least 25 per cent by 2020.
Current pledges on the table from developed countries as a group are approximately in the range of 13–20 per cent. We need to be an effective voice for all countries to lift their level of ambition for emission reductions.
Second, we need developed countries to make a serious financial commitment to help developing countries cope with climate change and make the switch to low carbon development.
Wealthy countries have created 70 per cent of the greenhouse pollution already in the atmosphere. It’s in all of our interests to help poorer countries move to a low carbon economy – their pollution will affect the atmosphere we all breathe and Australia’s climate.
Third, we need strong rules to stop the destruction of the world’s remaining forests, the lungs of the Earth.
I am encouraged by a statement issued by Commonwealth leaders, representing a quarter of the countries that will vote at Copenhagen, just a few weeks ago. The statement said: “We stress our common conviction that urgent and substantial action to reduce global emissions is needed and have a range of views as to whether average global temperature increase should be constrained to below 1.5 degrees or to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
Australia has been a leader in a previous landmark treaty to avoid dangerous impacts on our atmosphere. It’s time for us to be a leader again.
Don Henry is Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation