Climate Change: An Emerging Australia-India Duet in Paris?

On March 28th, the Australian government released its Paris climate conference discussion paper, designed to kick-start a public discussion on Australia’s climate change commitments in its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution). The INDCs of all countries, detailing their post 2020 emission reduction targets, are required to be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ahead of the crucial Paris talks in December 2015, where countries hope to agree to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that limits average global temperature rise to 2ºC.

Australia’s discussion paper, however, lacks any reference to the target, even though this has been a stated aim of the signatories to the UNFCCC ever since the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The Greens (Australia’s green political party) have been quick to accuse the Abbott government of once again attempting to argue for exceptional treatment for Australia in 2015, just as was the case in 1997 at the talks for the Kyoto protocol. According to Greens leader Christine Milne, “nothing has changed” in Australia’s “you go first, I’ll catch up later” approach to climate mitigation: “In 1997, Robert Hill argued that Australia was an exception, that our economy was disproportionately dependent on coal and therefore we were a special case and needed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Fast forward to 2015, and we have a repeat performance from Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott.”

The Abbott government’s issues paper does point out that “coal accounts for nearly 60 per cent of our total primary energy supply” and that “95 per cent of Australia’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuel sources.” The danger to the Paris Conference is that Australia’s hardening stance on emission reductions offers a chance for developing countries to adopt them as a shield against having to promise commitments of their own.

India, the world’s fourth-largest emitter (if one counts the European Union as a bloc), has historically aligned itself with China at previous UN Climate conferences in arguing that developing countries must be given leeway to pursue lifting their people out of poverty as their first priority. However, since China signed a bilateral agreement with the U.S. last year promising to peak its emissions by 2030 among other commitments, India could fear being left out in the (gradually warming) cold. This is where Australia might come in handy for developing nations seeking to limit their commitments, for the Abbott government seems intent on pursuing a policy of ignorance and non-commitment when it comes to climate change. In fact, one of the first steps of the new Australian government was to remove the Carbon Pricing Scheme introduced by the Greens-Labour coalition in 2012, responsible for a drop in Australian carbon emissions in 2012 and 2013. Given that India and Australia together account for roughly 7% of global emissions, it is clear that any global climate change agreement will need these two countries to show leadership. Yet if past behavior is the best indicator of future results, this has a low probability. India has consistently advocated the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and Respective Capabilities (RC) agreed upon in the Rio Summit in 1992. Yet it has taken adherence to this outdated model (which places such high-income countries as South Korea, Singapore and Qatar in the same “developing” category as India) to a level of dogmatism incompatible with a stable climate. Countries characterized as developing at the time of the Rio Summit have since industrialized to the point that their growing emissions have exceeded those of developed nations in every year since 2008. Successive Indian governments nevertheless continue to advocate for the same equity-based framework as in 1992; they have valid and important justifications, like the country’s low per capita emissions, its growing investment in renewable energy, and its pressing developmental needs. However, this rhetoric on equity in action masks the need to stop the inequity of climate change’s impacts.

Disappointingly, a convergence of Australian and Indian views at the talks in Paris this December could prove fatal to what might be the last chance to agree to a global agreement to combat climate change by 2020. Australia and India’s stances on emissions reductions appear as intransigent as they are inadvisable. Even based purely on self-interest, neither India nor Australia is a good candidate for the “do-little” club on climate change.

Both countries are among the most likely to be severely affected by climate change in the future; they have already suffered huge droughts, floods and cyclones. Considering the billions of dollars spent on disaster relief every year in India, there is clearly a need for a sustainable approach to development to reduce these impacts. In the foreign policy realm, for a country intent on having both a seat at the global high table and the responsibility befitting its growing power, India remains frustratingly unable to come out of second gear on an issue that is one of the biggest threats to humanity in the 21st century. India is thereby missing out on opportunities to exercise global leadership and set an example for the developing world. Reflexive vetoing and a me-first attitude could strain India’s relationships with countries even more affected by climate change than itself, like the Least Developed Countries and Small Island States which India has championed in its proud anti-colonial past. In particular, India’s ambition to lead the Indian Ocean toward prosperity will be a hard sell to neighbours like the Maldives as these countries go underwater. China is slowly softening its stance on climate change as it realizes the damage to its environment and benefits from the renewable energy market; India should not allow itself to be cast in the role of spoiler while also denying itself the economic opportunities of making the transition to a green economy a central part of “Make in India.”

For a developed country like Australia, the arguments for exceptionalism are much more deplorable. Unlike European counterparts who have diversified rather than hide behind historical reliance on fossil fuels, the Abbott government remains insistent on doing its best impression of Australia’s famed flightless birds burying their heads in the sand of its gradually flooding beaches. While developing countries including China and even relatively lower-capacity India have invested $131 billion in renewable energy in 2014, Australia, a far richer country, looks set to unapologetically keep all its eggs buried in coal mines. A Climate Change Performance Index for 2014 ranked Australia at a lowly 57 out of 61 countries on its efforts to combat climate change, only ahead of fellow fossil fuel luminaries Canada, Iran, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. During the India-Australia cricket match, everyone in India saw beautiful advertisements for Australia’s natural wonders, from its beaches to its Great Barrier Reef. Yet it would be ironic if Australia gained its cricket win but lost the environmental assets that make it a tourist attraction for Indians and people across the world.

If such exercises in exceptionalism continue, one would not want to bet on a successful global climate change agreement this December. If every country behaves as if their challenges are above average and their situation is exceptional, they may achieve short-term diplomatic victories but will leave us all worse off. If we are all exceptional, none of us are – and our planet’s exceptional habitability can best be preserved by leaving aside arguments for inaction and solving the collective action problem of climate change.


**This article was originally published in the The Diplomat on April 22, 2015. It was co-written by Aniruddh Mohan, who holds a BEng. Hons. in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Manchester and an MPhil in Nuclear Energy from the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, his Master’s thesis was on Climate Change in India & the contribution Nuclear Energy can make through 2050. His research interests include Climate Change, Energy Policy and the Politics of Nuclear Power. He used to run a video channel on YouTube discussing the results of his favourite football team Manchester United and his Twitter handle @foreverutd reflects his enduring passion for all things Red.