Australia Won't Be Missed

11/11/2013 08:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

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"If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu," said Erwin Jackson of The Climate Institute incapsulating the unusual move by the newly elected Australian government in not sending a minister to COP19.

NGOs across the country have been vocal about their disappointment in the Australian government. Yet, given Australia's reluctance to be ambitious at previous negotiations, the real question is - will we even be missed?

The UNFCCC climate change negotiations over the next fortnight will be led by Dr Justin Lee, Australia's climate change ambassador and lead diplomat as opposed to a ministerial representative. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has responsibility over international negotiations within the new Abbott government, has stated that she is too busy to attend the meeting. Environment Minister Greg Hunt, meanwhile, will be back in Australia, introducing legislation to repeal the carbon price.

It has been unprecedented for Australia not to send a minister for the high-level segments, as is the case with most other countries. A lack of ministerial representative is rare, irrespective of which political party has been in power domestically.

Environment Minister Greg Combet did not attend last year, but the government did send Parliamentary Secretary Mark Dreyfus in lieu of him. This government is choosing to do neither.

Australia not being present in Warsaw is particularly interesting given its rhetoric of ambition and eagerness to take on leadership roles. Last year in Doha, Australia chaired the Umbrella group, a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries. That said, our performance was mediocre as Australia announced a minuscule reduction target that the current government is only supportive of 'in principle.'

Australia has pledged to implement an emissions reduction target of five per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, with the potential to increase this to between 15-25 per cent, depending on international action. This five per cent target effectively equates to 99.5 per cent lower on 1990 levels - the baseline used within Kyoto. Effectively, Australia has squandered any opportunity to be taken seriously as a 'leader' on climate change.

Hunt still has ambitions in bringing the major emitters - China, India, the European Union, and the United States - together, in order to have an effective global agreement by 2015. This is Hunt's agenda for the G20 meeting in Brisbane next year. And yet, with everyone else present in Warsaw, Australia is unlikely to be included in these discussions, let alone leading it.

Diplomacy is laced with nuances in language but, Australia's recent actions beyond not attending Warsaw speak louder than words. Between aims to dismantle Australia's carbon price and the Climate Change Authority (CCA) responsible for providing independent advice on emission targets; and implementing a $3.2 billion dollar plan unlikely to even achieve our five per cent target - we're telling the world that we don't care.

Warsaw is important, in the same way every UNFCCC negotiation is. Decisions around ambition or finance are needed if the world is to realistically aim for an agreement in 2015 that isn't a repeat of Copenhagen.

Australia won't be missed, if anything we're missing an opportunity.

By Kahil Lloyd, photo by Laura Owsianka. For more stories, please visit The Verb.