Politics

Australian government refuses to join 40 nations phasing out coal, saying it won’t ‘wipe out industries’ | Cop26

The Australian government will not join more than 40 countries committing to phase out coal power, with the energy minister declaring Australia was focused on developing technology not “wiping out industries”.

The pledge at the Cop26 climate summit to end the use of coal power – by the 2030s “or as soon as possible thereafter” for the wealthy, and the 2040s by developing nations – was backed by five of the biggest 20 coal power users: South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine.

A separate group of countries, including the US, Canada and the UK, pledged to end overseas investment in coal, oil and gas by the end of next year.

Neither statement was signed by Australia, China, Japan or India, and the phase-out dates for coal power were later than the British hosts of the summit – which had set a goal of “consigning coal to history” – had suggested.

But supporters of the push said the formal commitment regarding coal remained a significant step – one that was unimaginable a few years ago. The Paris agreement, the global climate deal signed in 2015, does not explicitly mention the need to stop using fossil fuels.

They said it built on a previous G20 commitment by all major economies, including China, to stop public financing for new dirty coal plants overseas from this year.

Asked whether the deals meant the end of coal was in sight, Angus Taylor – Australia’s emissions reduction minister – said the government’s focus was “not on wiping out industries”.

“It’s on bringing down the cost of low-emissions technologies and making sure those low-emissions technologies can deliver for Australians and for our customers throughout the world,” he said in Glasgow.

“We will supply the products our customers need to bring down their emissions over time. This can’t happen overnight, let’s be clear about this. There is a sensible pathway here, Australia will be part of it.”

Richie Merzian, a former Australian climate diplomat who is now the climate and energy program director with the Australia Institute, said the new commitments on coal in Glasgow were “beyond anything we have witnessed before” and would have ramifications for Australia. Twenty-one countries had for the first time committed to phasing out existing and not build new coal power, he said.

“The Australian government is trying to push Australia backward while the world moves forward,” he said. “Indonesia, the world’s largest thermal coal exporter, has signed up to the … transition to phase out coal and Vietnam, an Australian coal client, is pulling the handbrake on new initiatives. This is just the start.”

The Morrison government’s 2050 net zero emissions plan has been criticised for not including new policies to reduce emissions in the short term as the scientific advice says is necessary, and relying on new technology to become cheap enough to make deep cuts in the 2030s and 40s.

The federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, announced on Thursday the government had started public consultation on 10 potential areas that could be opened up for new offshore oil and gas exploration.

It coincided with a new report by Climate Analytics that said the rollout of gas for heating, electricity and cooking was turning it into the “new coal”, and calculated its worldwide use must be slashed by nearly a third this decade to avoid disastrous climate effects.

Gas is often described as having half the emissions of coal when burned, but research has found its impact on the climate is greater due to methane leakage.

Mathias Cormann, Australia’s former finance minister, used a speech to Cop26 on Thursday to urge countries to stop subsiding fossil fuels.

In his latest about-face on climate policy since becoming the head of the OECD, Cormann said “more comprehensive policy action on climate” was needed to translate the increased political ambition on show in Glasgow into “real outcomes”. That included removing “distortions” that diverted investment away from the transition to net zero emissions, he said.

“Too many policies still encourage emissions-intensive investment, production and consumption,” he said.

“Inefficient government support or subsidies not only have a negative impact on our collective efforts to achieve net zero emissions, but also on our biodiversity, water and air quality.”

Cormann was a part of the cabinet that last year backed a so-called “gas-fired recovery” from the pandemic, and dedicated funding for a feasibility study into a new coal power plant in Queensland. The Morrison government has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to gas developments, including helping businesses open up the potentially vast Beetaloo Basin gas field in the Northern Territory and pay to build a new gas-fired power station.

Cormann cited OECD data that direct support for fossil fuel production across 50 advanced and emerging economies increased by 5% in 2020, partly due to government bailouts for state oil and electricity companies.

Taylor is due to leave Cop26 on Friday. Australia’s delegation will then be led by Jamie Isbister, the ambassador for the environment, during the second week of talks.

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