If you’d asked me on Sunday night what the response of the Australian government to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s big new summary report of the state of climate science would be, I would have guessed a few brief lines misleading journalists about greenhouse gas emission reduction percentages, something about technology not taxes, and maybe a nice sprinkling of ‘we’re going to meet and beat our targets, despite our own department reports saying that we won’t’.
A press conference held yesterday, along with a range of media appearances from government ministers, brought up an awful new line that rang very familiar – shifting blame onto developing countries, because their emissions are currently higher than Australia.
“We cannot ignore the fact that the developing world accounts for two thirds of global emissions, and those emissions are rising. That is a stark fact. It is also a clear fact that China’s emissions account for more than the OECD combined”, Morrison confidently declared, at his press conference. That was reflected in the headlines.
There’s a reason “But China!” keeps coming up – it works extremely well as a line to argue for increasing emissions and reduced action on climate action domestically. It touches on pre-existing xenophobia. It brings up anxieties around disarmament (“If we get rid of our nuclear weapons, we’ll be invaded by Russia!”) and it also relies heavily on a serious and widespread misunderstanding about how global climate action works.
This misunderstanding is nicely represented in a question from Nine journalist Chris Uhlmann at the press conference. “Are you saying that when we get to Glasgow at the end of this year, that the dispensation that’s been given to China should end?”.
Wait, what? “Dispensation”? What special treatment is China getting on climate?
The principles of the 2015 Paris climate agreement are centred around ‘equity‘. This fairness principle means countries that have only emitted very little in the past get a longer ‘runway’ to first emit more as their economies grow and then reduce their emissions, while countries that have historically emitted quite a lot should reduce their emissions much, much faster. Everyone gets the same budget; those who’ve spent wildly in the past have to rein in their spending much more aggressively.
That means, for the world to align with the highest ambitions of the Paris agreement, China can actually reach ‘net zero’ emissions by the year 2060, instead of the stated average of 2050. It’s later than other countries like Australia – which should reach net zero well before 2040 – but it’s still comfortably compatible with 1.5°C of global heating.
Imagine all the greenhouse gas emissions currently sitting above our heads, in the sky. That mass of gases isn’t just from last year, or the year before. For the most part (excluding the cycling of gases in and out of the atmosphere through land and ocean sinks), those gases have been added through the burning of fossil fuels over the history of our species.
Most have been added very recently; more than half since I was born. And most actually come from rich, “developed” countries that leaned heavily on dangerous fossil fuels to grow their economies:
The graphic above, from Our World in Data, makes the point nicely. “The United States has emitted more CO2 than any other country to date: at around 400 billion tonnes since 1751, it is responsible for 25% of historical emissions. This is twice more than China – the world’s second largest national contributor”.
Australia’s historical contribution to emissions does not dominate the world, but is wildly outsized relative to population. The 17.4 billion tonnes of CO2 compared to – for instance – 14.2 billion tonnes from Brazil, which has around 8 times Australia’s population.
Uhlmann’s question, and Scott Morrison’s declarations, both reflect an ignorance of this consideration of historical equity in tackling emissions. Those most responsible for the problem – the problem being 1.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere – ought to be most responsible for fixing it.
Morrison and Taylor frame their pleas in bad faith, as an act of sheer generosity towards struggling developing countries. Their line is that Australia’s “tech not taxes” climate policy will export the technologies required to resolve climate change to developing countries. But it’s clear that for most countries in the Global South, it is well established and commercially viable technologies – like wind, solar, electric vehicles, energy storage and heat pumps – that will do the bulk of the work in avoiding future reliance on fossil fuels. The goal of the Australian government’s chosen technologies is to worsen reliance on fossil fuels, like CCS and fossil hydrogen. Their defence, then, is really just an inverted way of again arguing to delay the demise of fossil fuels.
One serious problem (not just in Australia, but it does seem particularly bad) is that Morrison’s declaration-of-the-day gets paraphrased into questions and uncritically accepted by some journalists, who are unwilling to even slightly critically interrogate the claim, or ask an expert about it.
During an interview on Radio National’s breakfast program, for instance, host Fran Kelly asked guest Greens leader Adam Bandt this question:
“The fact is some of the largest emitters are doing that [high emissions] and worse, I mean, China and India, are refusing to even talk about a shift away from coal. Isn’t that the truth that the world won’t be fair dinkum about decarbonizing until China, particularly and India, are slashing their emissions?”
The claim that China and India are ‘refusing to even talk” about ditching coal is an outright falsehood. Leaders in both China and India are at least considering it, though both have massive gaps in implementing it. But the deeper, more toxic and more illogical assumption in the statement is that no country should begin decarbonising before every larger country has decarbonised first. Ditching fossil fuels must happen in parallel, not in serial – we don’t need to form an orderly queue. It’s utterly ludicrous, counter to every single component of climate science, but it’s stunningly common among many of Australia’s professional commentariat.
Phil Coorey on last night's IPCC report:
"Unless you can wrangle China there's not much point"
Justifying Australia's corrupt and disgraceful lack of action on the climate crisis.
— Daniel Bleakley (@DanielBleakley) August 9, 2021
Worse still, Morrison and Taylor are pointing blame at countries that will experience far more significant climate harms than relatively wealthy countries like Australia. That’s established clearly in the latest IPCC report, which provides regional detail on climate impacts due to improvements in climate modelling. Countries like China and India have also been the primary customers for Australian coal and gas exports. On one hand, the line is that those fossil exports ‘help those countries develop’. On the other hand, Morrison finger wags them for having such “high” emissions relative to Australia.
Fossil fuel exports, the ruination of global climate meetings, and disproportionately high domestic emissions have all resulted in harm to the countries that Morrison is now blaming for causing climate change. Australia has played an over-sized global role in worsening climate impacts, and damaged the planet’s habitat far worse than many other countries with a much higher population. This new narrative of blame is dark, and cruel.
Ultimately, it’s another grim effort for leaders to shed themselves of any responsibility to deal with a problem that they have personally benefited from worsening. In the same vein of shifting focus and avoiding responsibility, Morrison was visibly angered by the horror of Extinction Rebellion spray-painting pro-climate-action slogans onto parliament house. The findings of the IPCC report – that “heat thresholds potentially affecting agriculture and health, such as 35C or 40C, are also projected to be exceeded more frequently over the 21st century in Australia under all [modelled pathways]”, wasn’t mentioned in the press conference – not by the journalists, or by Morrison or Angus Taylor.
After that press conference, the words “CLIMATE DUTY OF CARE” were covered up with white sheets of paper, outside Australia’s parliament house. That is a truly historic visual metaphor for the actual crime being committed within the walls of that building, and the blanket ignorance and denial that sustains it.
— Karen Barlow (@KJBar) August 10, 2021
The Daily Telegraph has run with the line:
— Peter Hannam (@p_hannam) August 10, 2021
And Morrison’s claim that China’s emissions are higher than the OECD seem to be wrong:
PM says China's emissions “accounted for more than the entire OECD combined”.
I can't find a data set where this is true. https://t.co/MfdLxqRY8c
— Tom Swann (@Tom_Swann) August 11, 2021