It’s widely assumed that small rich countries, like Australia, can choose to do nothing about climate change, without suffering any adverse consequences. Like a dozen or so other countries, we contribute about 2 per cent of total emissions. So, whether we reduce emissions or not won’t (at least directly) have a big impact on the climate change we experience, just as an individual decision to engage in (or refrain from) littering, won’t have much impact on the amount of litter they see.
But this analysis assumes that countries that do make a serious effort won’t impose any sanctions on those that don’t. Until recently, this was a reasonable assumption since the most prominent laggards were China and the US, both of which can do pretty much as they please in international matters. But China and the US are taking their commitments seriously now, and are taking some big steps to reduce emissions. That changes the calculation for a would-be free rider.
The Harper government in Canada is already discovering this. Harper is a (barely concealed) climate denialist, who has attacked climate science, and promoted the work of ‘sceptics’. Having repudiated Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it interfered with Canada’s aspirations to be an ‘energy superpower’ Harper imagined he would have no trouble securing agreement for the Keystone Pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil from the hugely destructive Alberta Tar Sands projects to markets in the US.
Canada is in the inner core of US allies, historically distinguished by its devotion to being a global ‘good citizen’. Unsurprisingly, the Canadians had plenty of favors to call in at the US State Department, which duly reported that the project was environmentally benign and should be approved.
But then everything went wrong for Harper.
First, it turned out that State had been too keen to return Canadian favours, and had relied on a consulting firm tied to the oil indsustry Then the US environmental movement, motivated in part by the Canadian government’s obvious contempt for the goal of reducing carbon emissions, made stopping Keystone a signature issue.
As a result, the Obama Administration has repeatedly delayed approval. Given the vicissitudes of US politics, any prediction of the final outcome is unsafe. For example, the pipeline might be a chip to be traded in bargains between the Administration and the Republican party (which strongly supports approval). Nevertheless, recent signals suggest that, in the absence of some new development, the pipeline proposal will be rejected.
Having assumed he would have no problems securing US approval, Harper has been forced into the humiliating role of a supplicant. He’s offered to take action to reduce Canadian emissions in return for US approval. His initial offer was laughable, and was dismissed as such. He didn’t propose any action on emissions in general, only to impose some controls the tar sands extraction process. And then, unsurprisingly, it turned out that none of the necessary work had been done.
If the output of the tar sands project can’t be piped to the US, Plan B is to ship it to China. However, this would require new port facilities on the West Coast and these projects are also running into fierce opposition. There is still a good chance that this hugely destructive project can be stopped, or at least prevented from expanding.
The lessons for Australia are clear. Major powers like the US and China can act, or decide not to act, unilaterally. But in a world where the US and China have committed themselves to meeting demanding commitments small rich countries that choose to renege will face significant costs.