Australia’s negotiating position at the Rio+20 conference this week confirms that the Gillard government considers Australia’s national economic interest a secondary concern.
The conference was roundly expected to collapse in disaster as countries have radically different views on turning the rhetoric of sustainable development into action.
The expected collapse followed months of negotiations, with a text that was heavily bracketed. In diplomat-speak, brackets appear around text that cannot be agreed to.
But on the eve of the conference’s opening, Brazilian negotiators released a watered-down document expected to be adopted by the closing session tomorrow. In essence, the deal reaffirms the principles of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
While the headline conclusions of the Earth Summit 20 years ago were new international conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, there was also a secondary conclusion.
Developing countries were happy to tackle global environmental challenges, but not at the expense of poverty alleviation. To protect their right to lift themselves out of poverty, developing nations blocked the excesses of wealthy countries wanting to impose big environmental costs on the world’s poor.
At this conference, developed countries entered the negotiating ring for round two and wanted a heavy emphasis on the “green economy” and “green growth”. Australia held a similar position. But it has been rebuffed by developing countries sceptical of the economic outcomes.
In the proposed final agreement, the “green economy” is considered “in the context of sustainabledevelopment and poverty eradication . . . and that it could provide options for policymaking but should not be a rigid set of rules”.
Developing countries smelled a policy rat. India’s Environment Minister, Jayanti Natarajan, said she did “not want trade-restrictive measures or protectionism in the name of green growth”.
The opposition of developing nations is wise and hits at the heart of the problem of green economics. Green policies require expensive taxes and regulations on industry that harm competitiveness.
Australia’s expensive carbon tax is a perfect example. As the carbon tax rate necessarily rises to drive cuts in our emissions profile, the political momentum to block or add taxes on imports that don’t carry equivalent cost will also increase.
And that can lead to green trade barriers that will undermine the economic advantages of developing countries dependent on exploiting their natural resources to grow their economies and alleviate poverty.
But the consequences don’t just fall on export-oriented developing countries. Supporting “green growth” also ignores the realities of classical economics.
Green growth rebuffs the idea that countries should exploit their natural resources, limit trade barriers so countries can take advantage of each other’s efficiencies, and not carry excessive regulatory costs.
Introducing carbon pricing without equivalent efforts from other major emitters undermines these aims. Despite Australia’s obsession with cutting greenhouse emissions, it is a relatively absent discussion point in Rio. The conference’s resolution on climate change was summed up in three paragraphs out of 49 pages.
Similarly, the Gillard government has adopted an excessively green position on ocean management.
A key ambition for Rio of the green movement was a proposed new governance structure for a treaty on the high seas that would seek to restrict fishing. In numerous United Nations forums Australia has aligned its negotiating positions with other resource-rich nations to limit restrictions on our natural resource advantages.
But the push-back against a new high seas treaty came from our negotiating allies such as the United States and Canada. It has ensured that a Treaty on the High Seas won’t be discussed formally for three years.
It follows the Gillard government’s recent announcement of an increase in Australia’s marine parks that undermines the fishing industry.
The significance of this shift cannot be overstated. Australian governments usually pay lip service to activists back home while driving a hard national interest agenda in global negotiations. By going to water on the high seas issue, this government has traded national economic interest for the public applause of the green movement.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd acted similarly by pushing hard in global climate talks despite Australia being a fossil-fuel- dependent economy that would have disproportionately shouldered the cost. But even Rudd knew when to draw a line to protect national economic interest. Based on its posturing at Rio, the same cannot be said of the Gillard government.