In the company of despots

Having made an art form out of avoiding hard decisions, the Morrison government’s refusal to strengthen Australia’s very modest, out of date emissions target for 2030 is no surprise. 

Virtually all Western countries – Australia is a stand-out – accept that ambitious early cuts are needed for any possibility of a relatively stable climate. Many participants in the Glasgow climate summit are committing to very high 2030 targets, at a level that would have been dismissed as ridiculous when the Paris Agreement was struck six years ago. 

On the whole, Australian federal governments have appreciated our global reputation for good science and followed expert advice and solid evidence. When Covid came along politicians saw the threat, listened to experts and accepted that we had to change our ways. 

But the Morrison government is applying different standards to the climate crisis. Climate change, like Covid, is an unprecedented challenge to economic orthodoxy and its growth mantra, but its impact is less sharply defined than Covid’s, which gives wriggle-room to government by allowing it to claim it has reduced emissions when it hasn’t. 

Science has always said that cutting fossil fuel emissions must always have priority. That didn’t go down well with Australia at the 1997 Kyoto meeting, so it led a contentious push to allow plant take-up of CO2 to offset fossil fuel use. Continuing to use those “carbon credits” today, given the pickle we’re in, verges on criminal misbehaviour. But we do.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce thinks it’s shonky too, but for quite another reason. He says that use of land carbon offsets is theft because it robs landowners of their right to clear their own land, which he says can be good for the climate. He also believes that those who advocate deep cuts to emissions are off with the fairies. 

It’s odd that the Nationals are using up energy and political capital on the much-hyped mid-century target. As energy minister Angus Taylor points out, net-zero does not mean zero, and anyway 2050 is still a way off. The Glasgow meeting will be focusing on what the world does before 2030, which as every national planner knows is a mere blink away. 

Australia’s irresponsibility is compounded by its response to the current UN scientific assessment that to prevent dangerous planetary heating we now must find ways of drawing down already-released CO2. The Coalition has taken this as a green light to keep using coal and gas while resurrecting the deadest of dead ducks, carbon capture and storage.

At a time when the International Energy Agency is advocating an end to coal mining, to throw this furphy into the Morrison government’s technology mix is pure madness. CCS won’t work even on a local scale – transport, storage and cost are against it – let alone at the gargantuan scale needed to affect global emissions. 

The only draw-down mechanism that we know is up to the task is plant take-up, which mostly involves letting nature do its own thing by stopping land-clearing. The Nationals say this infringes property rights. That is an argument we should not want them to win.

Joyce and Queensland senator Matt Canavan have said they think Australia should be unrepresented at Glasgow. That puts us in the company of Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose despotic leaders have declined to attend. Are these their preferred bedfellows?

The Nationals reject the global scientific consensus that we are in a climate emergency. Their defence of carbon-intensive energy is short-sighted and self-serving, and their disdain for the science of global warming and its imperative to cut emissions is profoundly wrong.

As the accountant in Barnaby Joyce and the economist in Matt Canavan should know, economies don’t function where there is instability. That includes environmental instability, with the prospect of increasingly intense bushfires, regular record-breaking storm, flood and heat events and a colourless, lifeless Great Barrier Reef.

All this has economic consequences. The Nationals can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that the cost of doing nothing about climate will be exponentially higher than whatever we finish up spending on ambitious targets. All they offer Australians and the world is more of the same.

Glasgow will be an unhappy place for Scott Morrison. Having contributed so much to his misery, his Coalition partners will be the first to say I told you so. The irony in that will be lost on them. 

But it takes a lot to break Scott Morrison’s stride. He will spin his Glasgow experience to make us all winners, just in time for the next election. So the games go on.

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