LONDON – Days before arriving in Glasgow, Scotland for what was billed as a crucial gathering on global climate initiatives, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his country was adopting a net zero emissions target of carbon by 2050.
But he added that he would not legislate on the target and instead rely on consumers and businesses to reduce emissions.
It was the kind of half-measure climate activists feared postponing until the summit of COP26, the recent UN climate talks in Glasgow. They said yes.
“Australia’s ambition for COP26 was to get out of this. Do as little as possible, ”said Richie Merzian, who previously spent a decade as the Australian government’s COP negotiator and now works as the climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute, an independent think tank. on public policies.
Affectionately known as the Sunburnt Country for its vast expanses of dry and barren land, Australia has long been under fire from critics as one of the world’s leading producers of coal and gas, and has narrowly escaped being labeled the top villain.
While the country remains a key ally of the United States amid tensions with China, it has done little in recent years to suggest that it will be a major partner in the fight against the climate catastrophe, despite its pride in its abundant native fauna and its many environmental treasures. His actions at the climate conference did little to assuage the concerns of environmentalists.
Critics say Australia’s net zero announcement was an empty promise and that the country’s participation in the world summit only showed the current Conservative government is more committed to fossil fuel interests than to fighting the substantial climate change.
“They wanted to neutralize the criticism that they were doing nothing about the climate” by showing up but did not do much beyond that, Merzian said in a telephone interview from Glasgow in the last days of the week. Mountain peak.
David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, was also scathing in his criticisms of how Australia fared on the climate summit.
“The position taken by the Morrison government in Glasgow was embarrassing, deeply inadequate and grossly inadequate as the climate crisis accelerates before our eyes,” he said in an email from Sydney after the summit.
NBC News has contacted Morrison’s office for comment and was referred for public comment by Angus Taylor, the Minister of Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction.
“As part of our plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we will act in a practical and responsible manner to reduce emissions and build on our achievements – reducing emissions while growing our economy, keeping energy affordable. and reliable and ensuring that our regions stay strong. This is the Australian way, ”Taylor said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Marise Payne after the climate summit.
Caught between the powerful fossil fuel industry and a cascade of natural disasters, climate change has found its place at the heart of Australian politics.
Mining has been a major driving force in the Australian economy since it was a British colony in the early 1800s, but coal production really increased after WWII and the industry is still an employer. major in many rural communities.
The country is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita, and the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In Glasgow, Australia was criticized for failing to sign agreements such as the UK-promoted Declaration of Global Coal-to-Clean Energy Transition or the US-led Global Methane Commitment with the aim of reducing methane emissions.
Coal-fired power then became a major point of contention in the closing hours of the conference, when delegates from China and India insisted on watering down the final wording of the COP26 deal and replacing a pledge. to “eliminate” the coal by the term “phase out”. ”
And despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertion that Glasgow had indeed spelled ‘the end of coal power’, Morrison reiterated his country’s commitment to the summit, saying the coal industry will work. in Australia for “decades to come”.
Australia’s lack of action on the issue sets a bad example for other countries, Merzian said, “instead of boosting ambition like the US and UK”
“They cover other laggards like Russia and Turkey because they can look at Australia and say, ‘Look, if a rich industrialized country like Australia isn’t doing more in the short term, why should I? do? ‘”he said.
Morrison has long been caught in a political stalemate over climate change.
His government’s coalition partner, the National Party, is a strong supporter of the coal industry and has made several attempts to block the net zero goal, citing potential risks to the country’s economy.
Morrison himself is a well-known promoter in the industry. He brought a lump of coal to the Australian Parliament in 2017 and, with showman flair, praised its value during a renewable energy debate.
“Unfortunately, historically Australia’s climate policy, to some extent, has been driven by the position of historical interests in the oil, gas and coal industry” and that is why it has fallen behind compared to his global peers, Christian Downie, associate professor at Australian National University who specializes in energy and climate policy, said ahead of the conference.
At the same time, the country has felt the impact of climate change and this has helped to increase the pressure from some voters for more decisive action.
According to a May 2021 poll by the Lowy Institute, an independent Australian think tank, 60% of those polled said “global warming is a serious and urgent problem” that should be addressed now “even if it involves costs. important ”.
The catastrophic forest fires in 2019-2020 destroyed more than 44 million acres of land, killed 34 people and resulted in the loss of nearly 3,000 homes.
Nearly 3 billion koalas, kangaroos and other native Australian wildlife have been killed or displaced by the wildfires, according to the World Wide Fund For Nature Australia.
And the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, has suffered so much from warming sea temperatures that it has lost half of its corals in just 20 years.
Australia reacted angrily when the United Nations threatened to degrade the reef’s World Heritage status unless the country did more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, narrowly avoiding designation after intense lobbying .
Yet Australia ranked last out of 60 countries for its political response to the climate crisis in an assessment released at the COP26 summit.
“The country’s lack of ambition and action has gained ground on the international stage,” the Climate Change Performance Index report says. “Australia has fallen behind its allies.
A spokesperson for Taylor, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, said the Australian government “rejects” the “subjective” findings of the report “because it clearly ignores key facts and statistics” .
Environmental activists have reacted angrily to the lack of action in Glasgow.
Two young climate protesters disrupted operations at the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, Australia on November 17 by rappelling down the massive machinery and saying in a live video: “We are the answer. to the climate crisis.
For Ritter of Greenpeace Australia, it is high time the country stepped onto the world stage.
“Australia’s reckless climate obstruction is as brazen as it is appalling,” he said. “A betrayal of our trust and a betrayal of our future.”