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Australia isolated as G20 meeting becomes ‘de facto climate change summit’

Leaders from the world's 20 largest economies gathered over the weekend in Brisbane for the annual G20 summit. Creative Commons: President of the European Council, 2014

Leaders from the world’s 20 largest economies gathered over the weekend in Brisbane for the annual G20 summit. Creative Commons: President of the European Council, 2014

Despite Australia’s attempts to keep climate change out of the G20 meetings that occurred over the weekend, world leaders ensured there was simply no escaping the economic climate elephant in the room.

Climate change was firmly on the agenda both inside the summit and out, with strong comments from US President Barack Obama, Ban Ki-moon and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and a heatwave reminding the conference that climate impacts are here and now.

The US and China stole Australia’s thunder earlier in the week by coming to a landmark agreement on climate action, and the US followed this with a US$3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which aims to provide developing nations with US10-15 billion to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Japan also pledged up to US$1.5 billion towards the fund, adding to other significant pledges earlier this year, including France’s US$1 billion, Germany’s US$935 million, Sweden’s US$550 million and the Netherlands’ $125 million.

Even Canada’s Stephen Harper—who has been a staunch ally of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in opposing climate action—announced that his country will contribute to the fund, but has yet to outline how much.

According to Oxfam, the majority of pledges made to date fall short of countries’ fair shares, but Australia has refused to contribute anything, with Prime Minister Abbott instead reiterating his support for coal during the leaders discussion and in his final press conference.

Australia even resisted a reference to the green climate fund in the communique, further cementing its reputation as a blocker.

The Abbott government’s refusal to contribute to the GCF, along with its significant cuts to foreign aid and blind support for its coal industry completely undermines its rhetoric of wanting to lift people out of poverty in the developing world.

Australia is working to unlock one of the world’s largest coal reserves and, while it is arguing that “less dirty” coal can help to reduce global emissions and pull people out of poverty, the reality is Australia’s coal will double electricity costs for the rural poor, they will not be hooked up to grids to receive electricity from it anyway, and will be severely impacted by both the health and climate impacts stemming from burning it. Among the G20 nations, however, Australia is not the only country with a fraught relationship with fossil fuels.

The Elders asked the G20 to get behind global climate fund and carbon pricing and, while the G20 did reaffirm its “commitment to rationalise and phase out inefficient fossil fuel  subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption”, the wording of the text was virtually identical to last year, and totally at odds with its continued US$88 billion spend on fossil fuel exploration.

Meanwhile, total fossil fuel subsidies are in the ballpark of US$1 trillion, and continue even as the the science tells us with absolute clarity that we need to leave at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to have a reasonable chance of keeping average global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

Overall, despite Australia’s protestations and given that climate change is absolutely central to economic development, the G20 ended up surprising many people as a “de facto climate summit”.

Landmark announcements from the US, China and Japan, as well as other positive statements from the UK, Turkey, Germany and others ensured that the moment was not wasted.

Australia may have been left isolated like “a shag on a rock” because of its denial of the environmental, economic and social reality of climate change, but for other countries the momentum continues to build for a positive deal in Paris 2015.

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