The ‘Technology investment roadmap’ is not about the presence of technology. It is about the absence of consequences. It is a repudiation of the very concept of global climate action, where a common goal is established around the world, and each nation works to achieve that goal. It is not a fudging of targets, or a dismissal of them. It is an active denial of the need to act on climate change.
For a government that likes to repeat old ideas, it is something that is refreshingly and horrifyingly new.
The old approach to climate fudging was to agree to targets, but mess them up so badly they became meaningless. During the Howard years, Australia waltzed into global climate negotiations and creating a trail of destruction in an effort to acquire a weak target, back in 1997. “When the targets were published, Australia’s commitment had become an allowance to actually increase emissions by 8 per cent on the 1990 base year level”, wrote the ABC at the time. Apparently, then-environment minister Robert Hill “could not disguise his delight”. The tactic back then was to participate, but to aggressively lobby for meaningless targets.
History repeated for the Paris agreement, with Australia securing a badly insufficient 26 to 28% reduction by 2030, widely criticised for being far too weak. This process was led by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott – who later claims he was misled into signing up, but re-established his support for the Paris agreement after he learned that Angus Taylor would be energy minister.
“I think that the government has lost its emissions obsession now that Angus Taylor is the energy minister so I don’t think it is now necessary … I’m not calling for us to pull out”, Abbott helpfully explained (sometimes I miss Tony Abbott’s penchant for saying the quiet part out loud). These acrobatics are simply explained: Abbott realised that the targets they’d secured at Paris were weak, but not anywhere near weak enough to guarantee a total absence of climate action.
Australia’s government has since patched up this problem of insufficiently low standards by trying to use a blatantly disallowed accounting trick to reduce Paris half. The government’s own environment department projects Australia will miss the Paris targets by a large margin, and so the COP25 Madrid talks were severely sabotaged as Australia lobbied to kill a statement that countries be explicitly disallowed from using this loophole.
That played a big part in wrecking COP25 and stalling progress. But the goal was achieved: ensuring the threadbare justification for even weaker targets was retained. The mistake of not-weak-enough targets was seen as fixed, and Australia’s great historical climate tactic – wrecking ambition by bullying the world into allowing for insufficient domestic action – continued unabated.
Today, the plan has changed. Instead of going to COP26 with an adjusted but blatantly weak target, Australia plans to go with no new target. The ‘tech roadmap’ that will be proffered instead is explicitly something that features no empirical baseline to test against. It is not the wrecking or manipulation of a target – it is anti-target. It is there to distract both from the open rejection of any update to the existing Paris target and the rejection of a ‘net zero’ policy. Australia can increase its climate harm three times over between 2030 and 2050 and that action won’t conflict with the government’s policy in any way.
The logic here is relatively simple: tread water for eternity, while Australia’s fossil fuel industries continue their work unabated and unregulated, and hope that if any consequences come to play, it’s well after the current batch of political players and executives have skipped into retirement. Australia has not left the Paris agreement, but it is standing in a back corner of the room, glassy-eyed, distant and unresponsive. It is a state of physical presence but emotional and intellectual absence.
Not everyone in the coalition understands the mechanics of this plan. Nationals Senator Matt Canavan has just published a piece in The Australian, in which he argues that “We should end our participation in the Paris Agreement, given the more immediate need to secure our manufacturing jobs”, wrote Canavan, moving on to nervously agitate for new coal mining and burning. It’s a hark back to Abbott saying the quiet part out loud, in direct opposition to Scott Morrison’s demand for quiet Australians.
The anxiety is driven by an intense focus on gas from the Liberal party, and a civil war between coal and gas is brewing. “I drove to Canberra last week and I saw about 20 “no coal-seam gas” signs in western NSW. But I didn’t see a single “no coal” sign”, Canavan said. Ouch.
As I wrote previously, the significance of last week’s flurry of energy policy news is more in what is being omitted, rather than what is being said. The smattering of technologies in a discussion paper is far less significant than the fact that Australia is now openly rejecting the establishment of emissions reductions targets.
This attitude was pre-COVID, but post-bushfires. This is a good indication of how significant this. The disastrous Black Summer bushfires that struck Australia so recently (but so long ago) actually resulted in the government becoming even more committed to the eternal extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
These shifts are galling when you read daily praise for the response to the COVID19 crisis. Of course, it’d be a different story if the virus could be shovelled into a furnace underneath a steam turbine. But as the pandemic slowly begins to ease, perhaps the climate rage of late 2019 might start to rekindle, too. Australia’s government might have tuned out of global climate ambition, but Australians certainly have not. The tactic of staying in Paris but ignoring it entirely won’t be sustainable for long, because COVID19 won’t later forever, and we won’t be distracted forever, either.
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