Failure to pay proper, high-level attention to negotiations under the UN's climate convention (UNFCCC) seriously endangers Australia's national interest in areas beyond climate change. This is the important headline conclusion from a timely Lowy Institute paper by Howard Bamsey and Kath Rowley.

The paper is timely because this is the year countries will likely agree on the shape of the post-2020 climate framework in Paris in December. As part of this process the Government needs to soon to decide what initial emissions reduction target Australia will put forward and how to approach possible Paris outcomes.

I would quibble with some parts of the paper. For example, we should acknowledge scientists' legitimate concerns about the treatment of land sector emission sources and sinks in the global framework. In the halls of the UN you often hear an Australian accent saying that a tonne of carbon in trees is the same as a tonne of carbon in the ground. This is not precisely true: tree carbon is more vulnerable to fire and release back into the atmosphere, for example.

However, on the paper's more important argument that building up Australia's diplomatic effort is necessary to promote its national interests, the reader is left with the question: what, precisely, are those national interests, and which is most important?

Bamsey and Rowley refer briefly and somewhat obliquely to several: minimising climate change (given Australia's particular vulnerability to climate impacts), and maximising flexibility of responses (given Australia's particularly emission-intensive economy and the higher costs of fragmented action). They argue that 'quick, decisive, and coordinated global action, should be a high-priority economic task for the Australian Government'.

Absolutely. But decisive action in service of what ultimate goal?

Under the Keating and Howard governments, Australia's approach to the UNFCCC was dominated by a desire to protect Australia's emissions-intensive export industries. This history still echoes today and explains some of the (in some cases questionable) criticisms of Australia's role in the UNFCCC. The period in which Australia failed to  ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even after extracting a very unambitious target, is scored in the minds of many negotiators and observers.

On the back of the reviews from Professor Ross Garnaut, governments in more recent years took a more balanced view of the national interest. They recognised our emission-intensive history but also included an acceptance that Australia's broader economy, society and ecosystems (which are, of course, all deeply interlinked) are highly vulnerable to climate change. Ultimately a strong international response consistent with limiting warming to less than 2 degrees is critical to the ongoing prosperity of our nation.

So while some core aims of Australian governments remain largely unchanged over the years – for example to maximise participation from all major emitters and ensure countries have flexibility in meeting national targets – there have been times when government also sought to build greater ambition into the international response. This was seen in the Rudd Government's diplomacy ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen meeting. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information by The Climate Institute show that the Rudd Government was not only pushing for contributions from other countries but that these contributions aimed high.

This year the character of the Government's international stance will be starkly revealed by June, when Australia will announce its initial contribution to the post-2020 framework.

Will we again offer a weak emissions reduction target, define our national interest largely around the need to protect emissions-intensive industries and ask the world, again, to subsidise our lack of action and carry more of the load? Or will we take a broader view and define our national target around the need to limit warming below levels that would cause irreversible damage to our nation, while at the same time managing the economic transition of a world inexorably moving towards clean energy?

It is essential, as Bamsey and Rowley point out, for Australia to build up its diplomatic heft in the climate arena. But the best diplomats in the world can't make up for poor policy.

The development of Australia's post-2020 emission target is an opportunity for all of us to look beyond short-term politics and consider the ultimate objectives of our national climate change policy. This target will be the key test of the Government's credibility within the UNFCCC process and the key test of its regard for our long-term national interest.

Photo by Flickr user Nomad Tales.