In world climate circles, Australia has often been lumped into the global “naughty corner” with traditional allies that include the United States, Canada and Japan.
But Australia’s recent recalcitrance on climate change is seeing it associated with a new more powerful group of climate action antagonists – China, Brazil and Russia – who are being blamed for pushing the world towards catastrophic levels global warming.
Last week, environment, climate and energy ministers from G20 countries met for talks in Naples, chaired by the Italian government, for a meeting some had hoped could be a platform for more meaningful commitments ahead of the COP26 climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November.
While the meeting of environment ministers agreed to a range of statements on biodiversity, resource use and public finance measures, the climate and energy ministers were unable to reach a consensus on any substantial issues related to long term climate efforts.
The key points of contention are understood to be a failure to reach an agreement to set dates to phase out the use of fossil fuels, as well as a failure to agree on a specific timeframe for achieving zero net emissions. It is understood these proposals were blocked by Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and China.
Also absent from the meeting’s draft communique are commitments from the G20 ministers to ramp up their interim emissions reduction targets, nor any commitments that would see countries wind down their use of fossil fuels.
Australia’s minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor, attended the meeting online, but it is unclear whether Taylor was active in the discussions on whether the G20 members would commit to a fossil-fuel phase-out or a zero emissions target.
A confirmation has been sought from Taylor’s office about the positions Australia took in the meeting, but it is understood that Taylor delivered the current line that focuses on a ‘technology, not taxes’ approach to energy policy and a “preference” for reaching zero emission by 2050.
It follows a substantial diplomatic effort on the part of federal environment minister Sussan Ley, who succeeded in convincing enough members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to delay listing the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’.
The UNESCO committee appeared set to adopt the recommendations of scientists, who have argued that the Reef is at significant risk due to the impacts of climate change.
The Australian diplomatic corps were able to secure support from members that included Russia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to delay the ‘in danger’ listing and avoid a major international embarrassment for the Morrison government.
During international climate and environment negotiations, Australia has aligned itself with traditionally allies – including Japan, Canada, and the United States – in a group that forms part of the so-called “Umbrella Group”.
Australia often led negotiations on behalf of this “Umbrella Group”, which has generally been seen as a group of industrialised countries that recognised the need to act on climate change, but often hesitant to lead emissions reduction efforts.
But Australia’s traditional allies are moving on, and prime minister Scott Morrison now finds himself lumped into the company of country leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in terms of the active resistance to global climate change action.
As has been recently underlined by the Guardian – peer-reviewed research from the Paris Equity Check has shown that Australia sits amongst four members of the G20 – with Brazil, China and Russia – as countries undermining global efforts to limit global warming to safe levels.
The initiative, supported by the University of Melbourne’s Australian-German Climate and Energy College, assessed the emissions reduction targets adopted by countries, and determined the level of likely global warming with which each target was consistent.
The assessment found that more than 40 countries had set targets that were consistent with global warming of more than five degrees, including Brazil, Russia and China, and a further dozen countries, including Australia, are currently committed to emissions targets that would result in more than four degrees of warming.
Scientific consensus suggests that global warming of levels beyond 4°C would be catastrophic for most parts of the world, leading to increased frequency and intensity of severe heatwaves, destructive levels of sea-level rise and extensive levels of species extinction.
While many countries have flagged that they will formally adopt commitments to stronger decarbonisation efforts at the next round of international climate change negotiations – to be held in Glasgow at the end of the year – Australia has steadfastly refused to strengthen its emissions reduction targets.
Following the failure to agree on key points at the G20 meeting, Italy’s minister for ecological transition, Roberto Cingolani, said that the proposals for limits on fossil fuel use would now be discussed at a meeting of G20 national leaders later in the year, and will remain a focus of countries hoping to use the end of year climate talks to secure a win for climate action.
Despite the lack of agreement from G20 ministers, the Australian-based Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC) published a new report that showed that fossil fuel industries still remained exposed to global decarbonisation efforts and that investors were encouraging governments to provide greater certainty in the path to decarbonisation.
“We know the transition is underway. It is foreseeable. It should therefore be manageable,” IGCC CEO Rebecca Mikula-Wright said.
“Investors and governments have an opportunity to act today to prioritise a just and orderly transition if we want Australia to emerge a winner in the global race to net zero.”