Climate ‘Pariah’ Australia to Slash Funding for U.N. Environment Program

By Patrick Goodenough | December 3, 2014 | 4:38am EST

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

( – Already reviled by green groups for repealing its predecessor’s carbon tax, Australia’s center-right government is stoking fresh controversy with plans to slash funding to the U.N.’s top environmental body.

Coming at a time when a U.N. climate conference in Peru is firing up activists, the decision by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government to cut funding to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) by more than 80 percent has drawn sharp condemnation.

Critics already view Australia as a “global pariah,” going against the tide of progress in the drive to tackle climate change.

Cutting funding to UNEP also comes amid a growing international campaign to upgrade UNEP from its current status as a U.N. “program” to a more powerful and better-funded “specialized agency.” Some activists even want it empowered to impose sanctions on countries that don’t implement environmental agreements.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday that the government will cut A$4 million ($3.4 million) in funding for UNEP over the next four years, reducing this year’s contribution from A$1.2 ($1.01 million) to just A$200,000 ($169,000).

It quoted Environment Minister Greg Hunt as saying UNEP was not a budget priority for the government, and defending the decision by pointing to greater funding being directed at environmental challenges in the region.

“I would imagine that most Australians would think that putting [A]$12 million into coral reef protection within our region, and combating illegal logging of the rainforests of the Asia Pacific would be a pretty good investment, rather than [A]$4 million for bureaucratic support within the U.N. system,” he said.

Set up in 1972, the Nairobi, Kenya-based UNEP describes itself as “the voice for the environment within the United Nations system.”

Since it is a U.N. program and not a specialized agency, UNEP has relied on voluntary donations from member-states rather than “assessed contributions” (the formula that sees the U.S. liable for 22 percent of the budget of agencies like the Worod Health Organization.)

UNEP executive director Achim Steiner told ABC he was disappointed at the decision, as member-states contributions enable the organization “to fulfil its mandate and be of service to the global community.”

Big contributors to UNEP include European countries and the United States. The State Department’s fiscal year 2015 request for UNEP is $7.55 million, although the actual amount U.S. taxpayers will likely account for is higher, as the State Department is only one of several agencies through which funding is channeled.

(According to the most recent Office of Management and Budget report to Congress on U.S. contributions to the U.N., $22.9 million was directed to UNEP in 2010, including contributions from the Departments of Commerce, Interior and State, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. The OMB reporting requirement expired in 2011, and some lawmakers want it reinstated.)

At a major U.N. sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro in late 2012, delegates failed in a bit to upgrade it into a fully-fledged specialized agency, but did agree that it would receive “secure, stable and increased financial resources from the regular budget of the U.N.”

For some activists this was not nearly enough.

In a paper two months later, senior Greenpeace International officials said the advance was inadequate. Executive director Kumi Naidoo and political director Daniel Mittler wrote that governments must “move urgently to complete the upgrading process,” ensure that UNEP gets significant additional funding – and grasp subjects like giving UNEP power to monitor implementation of multilateral environmental agreements and “impose sanctions on those breaking the rules.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott looks on as President Obama talks to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the G20 summit in Brisbane on November 15, 2014. Abbott tried unsuccessfully to keep climate change off the summit agenda. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

International laughing stock’

Abbott’s decision to reduce funding to this body drew sharp condemnation from political opponents.

“This is a program that helps developing countries develop in a way that is environmentally sustainable,” Tanya Plibersek, the Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, told reporters, calling the cuts “petty” and accusing the prime minister of “taking Australia backwards on climate change.”

“Tony Abbott has made Australia an international laughing stock with his backward policies on climate change and the environment,” said Labor’s environment spokesman, Mark Butler.

“Australia is a global pariah on the climate front,” Australian Greens leader Christine Milne was quoted as saying, reprising a comment she made when Abbott last year introduced legislation to repeal a carbon tax introduced by his Labor predecessor.

Since mid-2012 the government had charged major companies for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted. Arguing that the scheme impacted energy prices and put jobs at risk, Abbott campaigned for office pledging to scrap it.

The new row in Australia comes a fortnight after Abbott hosted a G20 summit in Brisbane, and tried to keep climate change off the agenda, arguing it was not strictly an economic issue.

The bid failed, however. Buoyed by a major agreement with China to curb carbon emissions, announced on the eve of the G20 summit, President Obama and others pushed for it to be an issue in Brisbane, and an end-of-summit leaders’ communique included a paragraph calling for “strong and effective action to address climate change.”

In a speech on the summit sidelines, Obama said no country “has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change” than Australia.

The comments raised some eyebrows in Australia, where critics questioned the appropriateness of the president wading into an issue so politically-sensitive that it was partly to blame for the defeat of two previous prime ministers.

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