Australia has again been exposed as a climate change laggard on a global stage, with prime minister Scott Morrison defying calls to strengthen commitments to emissions reductions and climate finance, and delivering a reheated version of the talking points long used at home.
British prime minister Boris Johnson set the tone for the World Leaders Summit on Monday, telling leaders that he hoped the Glasgow conference could serve as “the moment when we began irrefutably to turn the tide and to begin the fightback against climate change.”
But while city landmarks in both Canberra and Sydney shone green to mark the start of COP26, Morrison delivered no surprises with his own address in Glasgow, confirming that while Australia would commit to a net zero target for 2050, there would be no changes to Australia’s targets in the critical short or medium term.
Instead, Morrison sought to give the impression that Australia’s (hotly contested) updated emissions projections for a 35 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 would amount to some sort of commitment, but it remains clear the official target will remain unchanged.
Instead Australia will focus on technologies. This is the “Australian Way”, Morrison suggested.
“By 2030, our nationally determined contribution here at COP26 notes that our emissions in Australia will fall by 35 per cent by 2030, far exceeding our Paris commitment. Australia meets and beats on its commitments,” Morrison told the COP26 conference.
“Technology will have the answers to a decarbonised economy, particularly over time. And achieve it in a way that does not deny our citizens, especially in developing economies, their livelihoods or the opportunity for a better quality of life.
“Driving down the cost of technology and enabling it to be adopted at scale is at the core of the Australian Way to reach our target of net zero emissions by 2050 that we are committing to at this COP26,” Morrison added.
Morrison also reiterated the claim (also challenged) that Australia had reduced its emissions by 20 per cent since 2005. It is a statistic that relies on Australia’s ability to claim credits for reductions in land clearing, and reflects little by way of structural changes to the Australian economy.
At the World Leaders Summit, Canada committed to phasing out the use of coal generators by 2030 and India committed to both reaching 50 per cent renewables by 2030, 500TW of new non fossil fuel capacity by 2030, and net zero by 2070.
In what might amount to subtle trolling of Morrison, Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama, who has been an outspoken advocate for stronger action on climate change, presented Morrison with a copy of Fiji’s Climate Change Act to serve as a “guide” for how Australia could commit to stronger 2030 targets.
Australia's pledge is a start. I've now urged @ScottMorrisonMP to show us a concrete plan to halve emissions by 2030.
I've given him a copy of Fiji's Climate Change Act as a guide –– it is our uniquely Fijian way of following the science to keep faith with future generations. pic.twitter.com/8c3UZIfFNg
— Frank Bainimarama (@FijiPM) November 1, 2021
Bainimarama has led calls for Australia to do more to assist Pacific Island communities through leadership on emissions reductions, as well as providing financial support for a Pacific region that is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
On Tuesday (Australian time), Morrison announced that Australia would increase its financial support to $2 billion a year, split between the Pacific region and South-East Asian regions. This commitment is a $500 million increase on Australia’s previously promised support and falls short of groups like Oxfam Australia have called for as a fair share contribution.
“Oxfam and our partners have called for the Australian government to show its commitment to our Pacific friends by increasing its investment to $3 billion over five years. Even this was a very modest request as the Overseas Development Institute has estimated our fair share of the US$100 billion target as US$2.94 billion or about A$4 billion annually,” Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain said.
“Poll after poll indicates that Australians believe climate change is a priority issue requiring more ambition from our government. We can and must do better.”
In terms of emissions reduction, Morrison’s plan also falls short. While Morrison has committed Australia to a net zero target, he has not produced sufficient detail on how that target will be achieved. This has been as evident on a global stage as it was when it was first announced at home.
“The Australian Government’s lack of ambition at COP26 is gravely disappointing. Without a credible 2030 target, we have no way to prove our commitment to doing our fair share to limit catastrophic warming. And critically, our contributions to support our neighbours in the Pacific and other hard-hit nations through climate finance are still inadequate,” Morgain added.
International environment groups have already seen through the guise, giving Australia one of the first ‘fossil of the day’ awards – issued to countries deemed to be “doing the most to do the least” during the UN climate talks.
“They brought no new 2030 target, no new policies to reduce emissions or phase out fossil fuels and ruled out signing the Global Methane Pledge,” Climate Action Network said.
“Australia, we’ve come to expect some unconscionable behaviour from you on climate change but this time you’ve truly outdone yourself.”
The sentiment was echoed by a chief member of the Climate Council, Tim Flannery, who suggested that Morrison may as well not have attended the COP due to the lack of new commitments brought to the conference.
“Our PM stood up in front of the world and effectively promised to do nothing. If speaking spots at COP26 were determined by the strength and merit of each country’s commitments, then the PM would not have been given the mic,” Flannery said.
The address to the COP26 World Leaders Summit is likely to mark the end of Morrison’s official commitments to the conference and may not make any further substantial contributions to the talks.
Instead, negotiations will now largely be carried forward by Australia’s delegation of diplomats, and federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor, who is expected to remain in Glasgow for at least another week.