A dozen years ago, in that moment in history when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull were closing in on a carbon pricing agreement, I joined a team of climate action lobbyists in federal parliament.
In a few frantic hours we managed to meet independent, Labor and Greens MPs, but try as we might we couldn’t get an audience with a single MP in the Liberal-National opposition.
We knew that many on that side of politics disliked “green” groups, but their leader, like us, supported Rudd’s carbon pricing scheme. Then, a week or two later, the Liberals dumped Turnbull in favour of Tony Abbott, ending any prospect of bipartisan carbon policy.
The MPs we did see taught us another lesson. Leading up to the big Copenhagen summit, polls showed Australians supported the stronger targets we advocated, yet we were told that for every one of us visiting them in Canberra there were a dozen fossil fuel lobbyists arguing for weaker targets. Unlike us they were paid for their effort.
History records that Copenhagen collapsed into tears, chaos and vitriol, with the US and China blaming each other for the debacle.
Fast forward to 2021 and another historic moment. Like Canberra and Copenhagen, the Glasgow meeting crawled with fossil fuel lobbyists, keen to eke out a few more decades of business. In Australia’s large pavilion there, Santos had pride of place to show off its latest carbon capture and storage project at a South Australian gas hub.
Which says all that needs saying about our country’s position at Glasgow. Australia refused to sign up to a well-supported pledge to phase out coal-fired power. Then Energy Minister Angus Taylor, saying he doesn’t approve of targets for specific sectors, stopped Australia from joining over 100 other countries in signing the US-sponsored methane pledge.
Glasgow might have ended like Copenhagen, and many predicted it would, but instead it produced a smidgen of hope in a world desperate for good news. “Phasing down” coal isn’t the same as phasing it out, and current national pledges for 2030 will not get us close to the 1.5C warming threshold. But we’re moving in that direction.
It was definitely not good news for the Morrison government. Making “phasing down” coal a global priority pulls the rug from under the Coalition’s persistent argument that coal is a big part of our future energy mix. And having to revisit our 2030 pledge next year will ensure the spotlight stays on Australia’s lack of commitment.
Back in 2002, when John Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, climate change was widely seen as a second-order issue. An equally-recalcitrant George W. Bush, keen to have Howard’s support in the Middle East, ensured Australia would not be isolated or ridiculed.
But 19 years later Europe and the UK are firmly against Scott Morrison’s stance, and Donald Trump’s defeat a year ago removed any possible US shield. In the global climate debate we’re exposed as never before, alongside countries with a big vested interest in fossil fuels, notably Russia and Saudi Arabia as exporters and India and China as consumers.
Australia has a clear moral obligation to play its part in the climate mitigation effort. Earlier in the UN’s history we would have done so without question, but no more. In refusing to update the target we set in 2015, we have acted against the spirit of the Paris Agreement.
Unlike a number of states including Tasmania, Australia has never legislated its emissions targets. With virtually unanimous global agreement that urgent action is essential, our country’s failure to lock its targets into law is a clear obstacle to an effective national response.
The government has access to top-notch economic planners but chose its own route to 2050 which Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute branded “economic science fiction”. The PM’s emissions reduction plan relies on speculative industries, unknown technologies and unmitigated coal and gas. And the efforts of others. He calls that “can-do capitalism”.
The government’s cavalier attitude to the 2050 target is negligence of the highest order. For many reasons, not least the damage done to our reputation as a good global citizen, we need sanctions to discourage such misbehaviour, just as we need stronger anti-corruption laws.
Creating a framework for crimes against nature will be in the spotlight at Hobart’s RACT Hotel on Thursday at 5.30 pm, when former Greens leader Christine Milne launches a new book by a globally-recognised criminologist, Rob White. This is a debate whose time has come.