Just two weeks ago former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ousted by his party colleague Malcolm Turnbull. However, there seems to be no change in the country's reluctant climate policy.

While Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter, the country is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Yet Canberra is lacking ambition in the run-up to this year's Climate Summit in Paris. Howard Bamsey, formerly Australia's Special Envoy on climate change, explains in this interview why the Australian Government has seemingly lost interest in cooperating with climate leaders such as the EU. Rather than a lack of common concern, he claims, mutual suspicion and differences in diplomatic style are hampering the relationship. 

Howard Bamsey is an Australian professor at the Australian National University and former diplomat and negotiator with extensive experience in international climate policy making. As well as serving as Australia's Special Envoy on Climate Change, he was co-chair of the UN Dialogue on Long-Term Cooperative Action on Climate Change and CEO of the Australian Greenhouse Office. He is a high-profile advocate of stronger emissions targets for Australia, and recently co-authored a research paper for the Lowy Institute on Australia's diplomatic handling of climate change.

Olivia Gippner: You have been involved in the international climate change process for years and represented Australia at several big summits and intersessionals. What defines the Australian position at these negotiations and how has it evolved?

Howard Bamsey: To most observers, Australia's position would have swung like a pendulum over the last 20 years. First at the Rio meeting and afterwards, Australia was very progressive with an intention to lead, then more cautious and eventually at one with the Bush Administration on non-ratification of Kyoto. With the advent of the Rudd Government, whose first act was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and that had an ambitious plan for emissions trading, Australia swung back strongly to the progressive side of the response effort. The Abbott Government reversed all that. Cautious changes under Turnbull are slowly emerging.

Nevertheless, there is an underlying continuity in the perception of national interests. Abbott was widely criticised for proclaiming that coal is good, but it was the Rudd Government that endowed the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute in part to try to ensure a future for Australian coal exports. The simple fact is that greenhouse gas-intensive industries in Australia are relatively important to the economy. Even though the financial costs of a transition to a decarbonised economy will be small, that transition will carry many sensitivities and adjustments.

This volatile stance on coal demonstrates what I see as the abiding characteristic of Australian multilateral diplomacy: its essential pragmatism. Australian delegates will often eschew the rhetorical and emotional approaches to issues that can be important for others. They sometimes miss the salience of symbolism. This can give Australian statements a hard edge and Australian delegations can unwittingly seem aloof and uninterested in what drives engagement for other countries. A previous Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC said he found Australian interventions 'scary'. 

Realising this, the leader of the Australian delegation a few years ago instructed her colleagues to include an emotive element in their statements. Suddenly, surprised Australian delegates had the unaccustomed pleasure of being congratulated on their fine interventions by delegates from all groups. 

That is a question of style. On substance Australian pragmatism and analysis have delivered some thought-leadership to the negotiating process over many years. Australia advocated differentiation of national reductions targets before it was respectable within the EU. Australia insisted on provision for market mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol against resistance from many in the EU. Add the Cartagena Dialogue, the first serious attempt to unite progressive voices across the UNFCCC membership, and the idea of schedules, which now take the form of INDCs, to the list of ideas which Australia has helped pioneer. 

As a colleague and I argued in an article in The Guardian, Australia actually has a lot to gain from and offer in the negotiations: we should maximise our influence by engaging fully rather than tentatively in the negotiations with ministers attending whenever required. We should also send a negotiating team of adequate size and expertise, and use our location and technical capacity to actively engage with our neighbours in the Asia Pacific to help them in preparing and then implementing their INDCs. 

Olivia Gippner: How does Australia see the EU, especially in light of the US 'Pivot to Asia' and in a context where China is increasingly important for Australian exports?

Howard Bamsey: The Australia-EU relationship on climate change has generally been awkward, even prickly for reasons that may not be immediately obvious. For Australian officials and politicians, long-standing differences with the EU over the protectionist and market-distorting aspects of the Common Agriculture Policy have bred a suspicion that Brussels has a broad protectionist agenda that intrudes into any field with a trade dimension. The consequence is a suspicion of European motives, for instance when negotiating the new EU-Australia Framework Agreement this year. 

Second, Australians – as many Anglophone observers – see the EU predominantly through the lens of the British press and their international affiliates. British reporting often focuses on the EU's institutional ineffectiveness, a loss of sovereignty, the democratic deficit and more recently on the idea of a British exit from the EU. The bizarre result is that on climate change matters, Australian representatives and their EU counterparts are often on different sides when fundamentally they have a great deal in common.

Olivia Gippner: Until 2013 Australia and the EU were in intense discussions to link their respective emissions trading schemes. After the abolition of the Australian ETS under the new conservative government, bilateral climate cooperation has reduced drastically from weekly meetings to climate change becoming a peripheral topic at EU-Australia high level meetings. What areas of cooperation on climate change are now left between the two?

Howard Bamsey: Yes indeed, it was the high point of collaboration when the common commitment to carbon pricing was at the centre of the relationship. Australia was also working closely with China on their pilot carbon markets. Of course, both of these activities have fallen away since the Australian Government turned its back on carbon pricing and both relationships have suffered as a result – probably without too much examination in any of the capitals. My impressions is that Australia's climate relationships with the EU (and China) are now focused on the Paris process and although cordial enough, lack bilateral substance. 

Olivia Gippner: The US-China agreement in November 2014 was hailed as a breakthrough in the global climate process. What does China's proactive climate policy mean for Australia?

Howard Bamsey: Australian governments have long focused on Chinese policy on climate change as a benchmark of the global effort, sometimes in order to justify doing less. In my opinion Australian politicians have often underestimated how seriously the Chinese Government is committed to dealing with the problem. 

As officials we had a window into Chinese thinking through an unusual bilateral partnership. Almost unannounced a group of Chinese officials arrived in Canberra on 7 January 2003 and said they wanted to collaborate with us as they prepared their first National Communication under the UNFCCC. They had looked at some of the approaches and methods we had used in our Communications and were impressed. 

But before they left Canberra we proposed to our visitors that we expand the relationship beyond technical matters to broader dialogue and real projects. We explained that we had in mind a real partnership, not a one-way process and that every project would have to deliver a benefit to both countries. And we added that unlike other countries (Canada had just pledged $20 million) we had no money to contribute; all activities would have to be co-funded. The Chinese gulped but eventually agreed. The partnership flourished, delivering benefits for business and research in both countries and eventually being elevated, almost uniquely at the time, to ministerial level. 

As I understood it, the Chinese Government sees climate change as a critical national interest issue for China. Curiously this commitment and the domestic action that has followed in China have not generally been reflected in Chinese positions in the international negotiations. There China has stuck to its long-established role as a developing country and recited the doctrine of dependency economics. Perhaps the Obama-Xi deal will allow Chinese delegates to move away from their accustomed position and exercise real leadership in the negotiations. A change in this direction would have a marked effect on other governments, including Australia's.

Olivia Gippner: Finally, what is your expectation for the UNFCCC Summit in Paris in December and November this year? 

Howard Bamsey: There are promising signs from a negotiator's perspective. As hosts, the French appear to have achieved a degree of 'vertical integration' in their Government that matches Mexico's before and during the successful Cancun meeting in 2010. By that I mean, from the President of the Republic down to junior officials, they seem to be working from the same game plan. They say they will avoid the problems that afflicted the Copenhagen COP, which I have heard them describe as a failure of European diplomacy.

For Paris, in contrast with Kyoto, the sequence of commitments is sensible. The COP decided a year ahead of Kyoto that the results, whatever they might be, would be legally binding. That naturally enough made countries cautious, chilling ambition on targets. This year we are deciding on the substance of commitments before we agree on their legal form. 

The pressure must continue to help bid up efforts over time. I hope that the Paris agreement will include a provision for continuous improvement in commitments through an ongoing review process. 

Recently Australia's business leadership, including the extractive and manufacturing sectors, as well as civil society organisations, including trades unions, have joined to create the Australian Climate Roundtable. For businesses in Australia as anywhere else, policy stability is essential for long-term investment decisions. Putting it another way, the Australian economy will suffer if political parties do not soon reach some degree of consensus on the issue. 

Already there are some signs that this plea may be bearing fruit. Australia's INDC target (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) is a good deal better than might have been expected even though in my view it is far from ideal. It may be a step towards a platform on which a stable policy can be built. 

Olivia Gippner: Thank you for the conversation.

Photo by Flickr user Jimmy Balkovicius.