Australia markets itself as laid back, easy going, beach-lounging country. In fact the current prime minister was a key architect of that image, when he headed up the public tourism agency.
At Cop25, Australia will try and keep a low profile, focus on blue carbon and avoid discussing its accounting tricks to meet its Paris promises.
When it comes to climate change, Australia really struggles. With high emissions, even higher fossil fuel exports, harsh climate impacts (like the current unprecedented bush fires) and weak climate action. Australia’s response is to just keep on digging (literally – which is why it remains the world’s largest coal exporter). To understand this disconnect you have go deeper into the land down under.
Australia is the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of the 196 parties to the Paris Agreement. But apparently being in the top 10% doesn’t mean much to Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison, who claims Australia is ‘just’ 1.3% of global emissions. Its astounding that the 182 other parties (including smaller emitters like Cop President Chile, or host Spain, or incoming Cop president the United Kingdom) even try. Australia emits more than 40 countries with larger populations, so naturally at a per capita level it is right at the top.
While Australia’s emissions are high, they are less than half the size of the emissions embedded in the fossil fuels it exports. The country is the third largest global exporter of fossil fuels, in terms of emissions, after Russia and Saudi Arabia. Of the three fossil fuel energy sources, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of two of them; coal and natural gas. Australia exports a greater portion of the world’s coal market than Saudi Arabia does to oil.
According to the latest Global Carbon Budget report, coal is responsible for 40% of fossil fuel and industry emissions. But wait there is more, according to the Production Gap Report Australia is on track to double emissions from fossil fuels production by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels).
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Understandably, the fossil fuel industry is a powerful lobby in Australia and at one stage, this self-described ‘greenhouse mafia’ bragged about actually drafting Australia’s climate policies. Just last month, realising that fossil fuels are becoming less attractive energy options for its trade partners, the minister for energy and emissions reductions Angus Taylor (who is attending his first Cop), approved a new facelift strategy: turn coal and gas into hydrogen and voila, a ‘cleaner’ fuel (for customers at least – as it comes with zero emissions on consumption). Forget renewable hydrogen, the process receiving the largest share of government funding is turning brown coal (lignite) – the most high polluting form of coal – into hydrogen.
Australia is no stranger to climate impacts. In fact my flights to Cop25 were delayed and close to derailed because Sydney was shrouded in smoke from surrounding bushfires. Sydney is the capital of New South Wales, the most populous state, where more forest has been burnt this year before summer even begins (in December) than the three previous years combined. World heritage forests are on fire and its a ‘global tragedy’ according to local conservationists.
Yesterday, Australia's national firefighters union called on the government to urgently phase out coal, oil and gas because climate change puts their crews and volunteers in harrowing situations like this more and more often https://t.co/S24bafL9Du
— Karl Mathiesen (@KarlMathiesen) December 6, 2019
Instead of diagnosing the cause, the Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack claimed that the only people linking climate to the current bushfires were ‘raving inner-city lunatics’.
According to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation Report 2019, 76% of Australians agree that climate change is causing more bushfires. Yet David Littleproud (real name), the minister appointed to head up the disaster response, claimed it was ‘irrelevant’ whether climate change contributed. To admit climate change supercharges bushfires, as many fire chiefs stated, would require responding accordingly. Instead other potential causes were brought in like not enough land clearing. Easier to blame others than to come to terms with your own poor efforts to solve a global problem.
Its for this reason Australia earned a Fossil of the Day from NGOs as soon as Cop25 kicked off.
Australia’s poor efforts on climate action are record-breaking. This current Australian government remains the only one in the world to dismantle a working emissions trading scheme (ETS).
For a few brief years, Australia had a national carbon price that reduced national emissions by 2% and grew the economy by 5%. Since it was dismantled, national emissions have been trending upwards. This makes it hard for the Australian government to meet its modest 26% emission reduction target (on 2005 levels by 2030) so over half of the necessary abatement will come from its leftover allocation of Kyoto Protocol (KP) credits.
The Australian government claims it has 367 Mt of KP credits and it is ‘entitled’ to use them toward its Paris Agreement target. The negotiating bloc that represent small islands states and least developed countries have called it out and there are many legal and moral reasons why it can’t and shouldn’t be allowed. Australia is the only party in the KP intending to do this and it is hoping that other countries don’t care. Certainly not enough to kick up a fuss at Cop25.
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Australia only got those credits by holding up the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, in a last minute objection, to ensure it could use a very generous baseline. And then under the first period it increased its emissions to 108% of that generous baseline, and in the second commitment period cut emissions by (drumroll) 0.5% from that same baseline.
The prime minister of Australia is best known for bringing a lump of coal into Australia’s parliament house and telling everyone there not to be afraid. Coal itself is not what is scary. It’s the policies that sit behind it and encourage production, export and provide it protection. It is policies that don’t link climate impacts to fossil fuels. And it’s the policy of avoiding climate action required under the Paris Agreement by employing loopholes.
At Cop25, Australia will be trying to keep a low profile. Will you let it?