No softening of Australia’s harsh climate change policy

Protesters at a People’s Climate March in Melbourne. Australia’s tough stance on climate change is already affecting the country’s Asia-Pacific neighbors, many of which are among the most vulnerable to climate change. But there are no signs the Abbott administration is likely to soften its position soon. Photo by: John Englart / CC BY-SA

International development agencies working on the climate change front line will be closely monitoring outcomes from this week’s U.N. Climate Summit in New York, where more than 120 world leaders will be gathering. But although Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be in the city for the U.N. Security Council meeting, he will not be at the climate summit, which will be attended by foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop instead.

For climate advocates in Australia and internationally, this is just another backward step for the Abbott government.

Australia used to be among the staunchest advocates of climate finance, and had apportioned about a tenth of aid spending on climate change and environment programs. But over the past year, the administration has announced its withdrawal of support for the Green Climate Fund and rejected U.N. calls to strengthen climate targets — moves that have received widespread criticism at international forums.

“At a recent conference in Samoa, a number of countries made political statements on Australia’s lack of funding for climate change,” said Annette Salkeld, climate change program adviser at Oxfam Australia.

“Where Australia was once a world leader in climate change policy, Tony Abbott has made us the only country to have gone backward on climate change.”

— Tanya Plibersek, shadow minister for foreign affairs and international development

Tanya Plibersek, shadow minister for foreign affairs and international development, told Devex that Australia should be leading by example when it comes to climate change. Instead, the government’s views, which are often “at odds with those of other world leaders,” are now affecting international relations.

“Tony Abbott is unlikely to ensure Australia plays an active role in upcoming important meetings like the U.N. Climate Summit in New York and COP20 in Peru,” Plibersek noted. “Where Australia was once a world leader in climate change policy, Tony Abbott has made us the only country to have gone backward on climate change.”

And the Abbot administration’s tough stance is already affecting the country’s Asia-Pacific neighbors, many of which are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

Take the case of Vietnam.

In 2009, 3 percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product was lost to weather-related disasters and hundreds of lives were lost. Australian aid has not only helped improve local infrastructure and disaster preparedness, but it has also assisted 1.1 million households improve sanitation facilities.

But the impact of climate change is expected to be felt more frequently and to intensify further in the years ahead, yet Vietnam still requires more work and more financial assistance before its climate change program becomes self-sustainable.

“Bilateral as well as multilateral programs have a role in assisting low-income countries deal with climate change,” Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon told Devex. “The problem is that the Coalition government has cut the overall aid budget, which will mean less money for bilateral climate change programs.”

Budget documents for 2012-13 had originally allocated funding for climate change mitigation programs in Vietnam through mid-2016, and Australia had a goal of enabling 750,000 people to benefit from disaster-preparedness training, risk-management plans and strengthened community infrastructure by mid-2017.

The Abbott government, however, cut the aid budget by 7.6 billion Australian dollars ($6.8 billion) over five years, including an almost AU$110 million reduction in support for the Asia-Pacific. It was the single-biggest cut the government delivered in its first budget.

In addition, the administration drastically reduced Australian support for climate change and environmental sustainability by 97 percent, from AU$17 million in 2012-13 to just AU$500,000 for 2013-14.

“Australia has a central role to play in the Asia-Pacific’s fight against climate change,” Plibersek said. “But the Abbott Government’s shameful cuts mean we are abandoning our neighbors in their time of need.”

There is still support within Australia to reinstate aid funding. A Senate report on the aid changes was highly critical of the impact foreign aid cuts would have on mitigation, environmental protection and climate change programs in developing nations. The report called the cuts a “retrograde step.”

The report recommended to reinstate environmental aid, including for climate change adaptation, as a priority area and to restore funding for climate change mitigation and environmental protection — both of which were promptly rejected.

In fact, despite criticism from within the country and internationally, there are no signs the Abbott administration will soften its climate change policy.

Just last month, Abbott government’s chief business adviser, Maurice Newman, wrote in an opinion piece that the nation was unprepared for global cooling due to widespread “propaganda” on global warming. And prior to departing Australia for the summit in New York, Julie Bishop rejected U.N. requests to strengthen Australian climate targets.

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About the author

  • Cornish img

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.