Australia has been dragged kicking and screaming to a net zero plan before Glasgow, but we still trail the pack | Michael Mann and Christopher Wright

After much Sturm und Drang, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has finally jetted off to attend the global climate talks in Glasgow with a vague and hastily assembled commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The growing international pressure and voter concerns over the devastating climate impacts Australia has endured in recent years appear to have finally dragged the government kicking and screaming to this position, despite a rearguard action by the government’s Coalition partners, the National party, against any such commitment. However, last week Morrison triumphantly waved a pamphlet proclaiming his government’s commitment to net zero under the banner of the “Australian Way”.

Long on promises and short on details, the government’s commitment relies upon the viability of dubious future technologies, most notably carbon capture at massive scale, rather than any mandated reduction in emissions, let alone a price or tax on emitted carbon. As Morrison said: “Our plan works with Australians to achieve this goal. Our plan enables them, it doesn’t legislate them, it doesn’t mandate them.”

While business groups, including those representing the country’s coal industry like the Minerals Council of Australia, praised the announcement as providing certainty, overseas observers have noted this commitment is the weakest among developed nations attending the Glasgow talks, and lacks any change to the government’s existing emissions reductions targets of 26% to 28% by 2030 (half what other industrialised nations such as the US, the UK and the European Union have committed to). Indeed, recent analysis suggests Australia is at the back of the pack among developed nations in terms of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels.

While this commitment, even if reluctant, to net zero emissions by 2050 is to be welcomed, in reality it needs to be seen within the broader context of the Australian government’s continued coddling of the fossil fuel industry. Australia is among the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters (ranking just behind Russia and Saudi Arabia) and the largest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, making up 7% of global fossil fuel exports. After decades of government-sponsored expansion, Australia’s coal and gas industries make the country the fifth-largest miner of fossil fuel carbon in absolute terms (larger than India, Indonesia, Canada, Iraq and Iran). Added to that, domestic emissions are significant, ranking 14th globally, and on a per capita basis the highest in the OECD.

This fossil fuel addiction stems from the close support by government of the industry over decades, with considerable assistance from the Murdoch media empire, who have presented fossil fuel extraction and use as inherent to Australia’s national identity and economic wellbeing. While growing concerns over climate change have prompted attempts at policy reform (most notably the former Gillard Labor government’s introduction of carbon pricing legislation a decade ago), these moves have been strenuously opposed by the Coalition and the mining industry.

However, as outright denial of climate change becomes untenable in the face of record-breaking droughts, fires, and floods, industry and its abettors in government and the conservative media have engaged in what one of us has termed the new climate war. This war on climate action involves an array of tactics that fall short of outright denial, but are nonetheless aimed at blocking, or at least slowing, the transition of fossil fuels.

In Australia, a chief tactic of the forces of climate inaction has been to call for a “measured response” which in no way constrains fossil fuel expansion. If Australia were to limit its coal exports, the inactivists argue, buyers would source coal from elsewhere (a variation of the “drug-dealer’s defence”). Or they assert that Australian coal helps bring developing nations out of “energy poverty” (a tagline developed by US coal giant Peabody Energy and promoted by climate inactivists). Coal is “good for humanity” they insist. Indeed, Morrison in a previous incarnation as the country’s treasurer in the hot summer of 2017 famously waved a lump of coal at opposition politicians on the floor of parliament, declaring: “This is coal … don’t be afraid!” Well, we should have been afraid. Very afraid. After all, look who is now prime minister.

Given the Coalition’s history of defending the dominance of fossil energy in Australia, what are we to make of their belated acceptance of the net zero agenda? Overall, it appears the song remains the same! The failure to commit to increased emissions reduction targets, as well as the recent disclosures that the Australian government has sought to water down a UN recommendation to phase out coal- and gas-fired power stations, and rejected a call to join a US and European-led pledge to cut methane emissions, and that the country’s energy minister will be spruiking the benefits of Australian gas investment at the Glasgow talks, all seem par for the course. While Morrison has swapped the lump of coal for a flashy pamphlet, there appears little substance to the government’s purported commitment to climate action.

Like other nations and companies committed to a continuation of business-as-usual fossil fuel extraction and use, it appears the name of the game is delay and inaction. Unfortunately, the time for delay is well past and the window to avoid catastrophic climate disruption is rapidly closing. We can’t afford further inaction and obfuscation by the current Australian government.

Michael E Mann is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. Christopher Wright is a professor of organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School and author of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations

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