Will Australia reluctantly be pushed into discussing climate change in the G20 while it is in the chair? This would not be a good look for Australia. But avoiding the topic will not be good for the G20. So why not take an initiative and set the terms for a discussion on climate change at the Brisbane G20 Summit?

The pressure is building for climate change to be on the G20 agenda in 2014. The headline in response to recent comments by the US G20 sherpa (the senior G20 official) Caroline Atkinson was 'Heat on Abbott as US urges climate change'.

At a seminar in Washington discussing Australia's G20 priorities, Atkinson made it very clear that climate change should be on the agenda in 2014: 'In the G20 – whether it's Beijing where there are issues of air quality, other countries where there have been extreme weather events or impending water shortages – I think there is growing understanding of the importance of addressing that'.

Pressure will continue to mount. President Obama has vowed to make fighting global warming a focus of his remaining years in office. US Secretary of State John Kerry has called climate change a 'weapon of mass destruction'. China and the US have agreed to share information on their efforts to combat climate change ahead of the UNFCC meeting in Paris in 2015 and its objective to set emission reduction targets for after 2020.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim have all ratcheted up their call for global efforts to tackle climate change. President Kim has declared 'this is the year to fight climate change'. During her recent visit to Australia for G20 meetings, Lagrade urged Australia not to abandon its role as a 'pioneer' in the debate on climate change. Civil society has also called for climate and sustainability to be priorities for the G20 in 2014.

Can Australia avoid climate change being discussed in the G20 in 2014?

It is reported that when foreign governments and stakeholders have broached climate change in G20 lead-up meetings, Australian officials have told them the issue is not a priority and suggested that other topics be discussed.

Apart from the fact that many others believe climate change is a priority, a problem Australia faces is that climate change has repeatedly been included in G20 leaders' communiques. For example, in the 2013 St Petersburg Declaration, G20 leaders stated:

We are committed to support the full implementation of the agreed outcomes under the…(UNFCC)…and its ongoing negotiations. We strongly welcome the efforts of the Secretary General of the United Nations to mobilize political will through 2014 towards the successful adoption of a protocol…COP 21 that France stands ready to host.

Is it feasible that there be no mention of climate change in the Brisbane Leaders' declaration? The 2014 G20 summit will be held a few months after the meeting of leaders that the UN Secretary General is holding in New York in September in an effort to build political will in advance of the UNFCC meeting in 2015. This initiative has been welcomed by many countries. If the G20 is the premier forum to deal with major global economic issues, it cannot be silent on climate change in 2014. After committing to action on climate change in previous summits, the omission of any reference in advance of what is meant to be a 'make-or-break' year in 2015 would damage the credibility of the G20.

So rather than continuing to resist and reluctantly being pressured into raising climate change in the G20 in 2014, Australia should take the initiative now and outline the role the G20 can play. Specifically, Australia should make it clear that the G20 is not the forum for negotiating emission targets or for advancing commitments regarding climate change financing. That is the job of the UNFCC.

But the G20 can serve as an opportunity for leaders to discuss pressing global issues, and as such, climate change will be discussed at the Brisbane G20 Leaders Summit. Expectations should be managed that there could be no big climate change announcements coming from the Brisbane Summit, but the G20 will play its role in building momentum on this issue in advance of the 2015 UNFCC meeting.

The Prime Minister is right that the G20 must be more than a talk shop. But sometimes talk is needed before action.

Photo by Flickr user Garry.