Coal mining or climate action? Australia faces up to COP26

Australian government’s new ‘plan’ to combat climate change may have little effect if coal mining continues.

Australia produces substantially more coal than it consumes, and coal exports contribute about 50 billion Australian dollars ($37.5bn) a year to national income [File: David Gray/Reuters]

Canberra, Australia – Days before departing for Glasgow to attend COP26, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Australian government’s plan to combat climate change.

Morrison described his government’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 as a major breakthrough, but many Australians are sceptical.

This is, after all, the man who as treasurer in 2017, produced an actual lump of coal during Parliamentary Question Time, and gleefully proclaimed: “This is coal, don’t be afraid!” while other ministers chuckled with amusement.

Morrison’s latest plan – described as “the Australian way” to reduce carbon emissions – relies heavily on unspecified “low emissions technology” breakthroughs and controversial “clean hydrogen”, alongside changes in land use and increased business and homeowner-led uptake of renewable energy.

And while the prime minister will be taking the net zero by 2050 ambition to COP26, no new legally binding targets have been announced. Australia will stick to its 2030 target of reducing emissions by between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels. This is despite the fact that, per capita, Australia is one the world’s largest carbon emitters, releasing about 17 metric tonnes per person every year, more than three times the global average.

Morrison, who only two weeks ago refused to commit to attending COP26 at all, says this plan will lead Australia into a sustainable future. His government claims it will increase gross national income and create as many as 62,000 new jobs.

No modelling was released to accompany the policy, and scientists, academics and business people are particularly alarmed at the lack of detail.

“Australia is scrambling at the eleventh hour to get to a national position on 2050 while the rest of the world has moved on to ambitious 2030 targets to halve emissions,” said Susan Harris Rimmer, Director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University. Rimmer described the plan as “a pathetic national position to take to COP26”.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of technology firm Atlassian, went further, calling the plan “just more bullsh**” and “ridiculously embarrassing”.

Coal exports

Australia has had a longtime love affair with fossil fuels, particularly coal. The country produces substantially more coal than it consumes, and coal exports contribute around 50 billion Australian dollars ($37.5bn) a year to national income. In 2019-20 alone, Australia exported 213 million tonnes.

Including fossil fuel exports in carbon emissions, makes Australia the third largest emitter in the world behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. Both major political parties – the governing Liberal Party and the opposing Labor Party – are committed to continuing exports, despite the industry’s clear contribution to the climate crisis.

“Australia has a two-track policy with regard to fossil fuels,” explained Melbourne Climate Futures’ Peter Christoff. “Domestically, things are gathering pace … but countries are responsible for their impacts on the whole climate system. This includes everything we do.”

“The real problem [for Australia] is exports,” Christoff said.

Climate change is already having a significant effect on Australia. The continent has warmed 1.44 degrees Celsius since record keeping began in 1910, and the seven years between 2013 and 2019 ranked within the hottest nine years ever. Rainfall has declined, tropical cyclones have become more frequent and more damaging, and the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is in a “critical” state.

Bushfires in the 2019-2020 southern hemisphere summer killed at least 33 people and billions of animals and led to Australia’s largest ever peacetime evacuation, while increasingly severe storm events could erode up to 15,000km of beachfront by 2100.

Australia’s Pacific neighbours, too, are suffering. Low-lying coral atoll nations like Kiribati are under constant threat from rising sea levels and flash flooding. Kiribati has even bought land in Fiji in case the whole country needs to relocate.

“Kiribati does not have until 2050 to see whether or not the world or Australia meets carbon neutrality,” said the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. “A promise of net zero emissions by 2050 is too far away for us. If world emissions do not decrease significantly by 2030, Kiribati may well become uninhabitable by mid-century.”

Most Australians want action

The vast majority of Australians want the government to move faster.

An all-time high of 75 percent say they are concerned about climate change, including 40 percent who are “very concerned”. Crucially, 82 percent of Australians support the phasing-out of coal-fired power stations.

Australian courts have already begun recognising that the Australian government has a duty to protect Australians from climate change. In May, the Federal Court of Australia found that the environment minister had “a duty to take reasonable care” to “avoid causing personal injury or death” to young people as a result of carbon emissions.

The minister has since approved three new coal projects.

Now, a class action has been filed by island communities from the Torres Strait, whose homelands are under serious threat. Sea levels in the strait have already risen 6cm (2.4 inches) in the last decade, twice the global average. The case is the first time that it will be argued in court that the whole of the federal government has a duty to protect Australians from climate harm.

“If we become climate refugees we will lose everything: our homes, community, culture, stories, and identity,” said Paul Kabai, a representative of the action. “We won’t be connected to Country because Country will disappear. That’s why I am taking the government to court, because I want to protect my community and all Australians before it’s too late.”

Polarised politics

What’s holding Australia back from taking drastic action on climate change is the country’s federal politics. At the national level, climate change has become a partisan issue, with the current ruling Liberal-National coalition broadly against acting, largely due to intense lobbying from the fossil fuel industry.

“In the late twentieth century, climate change became weaponised by the right as an identity issue,” Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, told Al Jazeera. “It got linked in with support for Indigenous rights and environmental issues … so it was dragged into those polarised cultural wars.”

It is this polarisation that Brett blames for the lack of action. “Politicians have been slow to shift. They started off as climate deniers, then they became climate sceptics, and now they’re just sort of slow.”

Change is happening, however, with politicians being forced into action by the economy as well as the strength of popular opinion.

“The economics of the power sector is that there will never be another coal-fired power plant in Australia,” explained Melbourne Climate Futures’ Christoff. “It’s just not financially sound to run coal, or even gas, and because the sector is predominantly privatised, companies just won’t want to invest.”

“The economics is absolutely conclusive.”

Several of Australia’s largest mining companies have already made commitments to reduce emissions. Fortescue Metals Group plans to achieve net zero by 2040, while Rio Tinto has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, investing 7.5 billion Australian dollars ($5.6bn) to do so.

“It’s a massive shift, but it’s the future for Rio Tinto,” said Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm.

Ultimately, it is the economics of the climate crisis that are likely to make the Australian government act.

“This is being forced on Australia from the outside,” agreed La Trobe University’s Brett.

“Morrison is a political pragmatist. He’s probably not persuaded by the issue itself … It’s the flight of capital from fossil fuels – not rising sea levels and deforestation – that has turned the government’s minds to the reality of the issue.”

Source: Al Jazeera