Australia’s national anthem reflects upon the nation’s environmental wealth:
“Our home is girt by sea,
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts,
Of beauty, rich and rare.”
However, despite boasting an incredibly biodiverse environment and having the world’s largest biogenic structure in the Great Barrier Reef defining the nation’s north-eastern coast, Australia is an environmental paradox.
Australia’s recent federal election was touted as the “climate change election” with many seeing it as a potential turning point that could change the nation’s environmental policies for the better. In a surprising twist, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative coalition were re-elected. But how does this affect anyone outside of Australia, and what effects could it have on the environment?
The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance, adopted by consensus at the COP 21 conference in 2015. At its core, the Agreement outlined how nations would collaborate to reduce carbon emissions with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided the scientific background for the Paris Agreement and was integral in helping form policy decisions to reduce carbon emissions. 196 nations took part in deliberations and as of May 2019, 195 are signatories. Each country committed to various changes in policy that would lead to emissions reduction and therefore help mitigate the damages from the upcoming climate crisis.
As part of its COP21 commitments, the Australian government pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 26%-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 as well as invest in renewable technology. Although some experts believed the target to be low, pointing towards evidence that Australia could reach a 45% reduction, there was hope that Australia would become a leader in the fight against climate change. However, as watchdogs have pointed out, the country’s emissions have continued to rise with little to no change in their policies.
A Tale Of Two Countries
Despite being condemned by both the United Nations and the IPCC for continued inaction, newly re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly told Australian media outlets that the country is set to reach their emissions reduction targets “in a canter”. Government reports continue to espouse the party line that Australia is on track to meet its targets, but a range of studies have shown that the country has continued to pollute and is therefore likely to miss their emissions target.
Closely aligned with the United States, Australia has joined them in pro-coal events and has backed up the Trump administration’s stance on “clean-coal”, referring to the use of coal power-plants in tandem with technology that mitigates the environmental damage they produce. However, contrary to what the moniker implies “clean-coal” is anything but, as it still produces high levels of carbon emissions. Seen as a cost-inefficient option that goes against current energy trends, “clean-coal” has been dismissed as a viable option by nations looking to curb their carbon emissions as well as transition away from fossil fuels.
The US, which publicly withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, has received considerable support from Australia. Both countries have continued to invest in coal power, with Australia looking to open the world’s largest open-air coal mine adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. During COP24 discussions held last year in Fiji, both countries reiterated their commitments to coal and explained that they had no plans to phase out their coal-fired power-plants despite calls from China and Fiji for greater accountability from developed nations and a marked reduction in coal power generation.
With an economy heavily invested in the mining industry, Australia has found itself at odds with a world looking to mitigate climate change. In recent years, the Australian government has found itself blurring the lines in the media as it attempts to protect its economic interests. From holding back emissions data to censorship of international reports, the government has struggled to admit their own responsibility in causing environmental damage.
Controversial Policy Decisions
Australia’s policy decisions have indicated that the nation’s leaders are still in denial as to their non-compliance to the Paris Agreement and the effects of fossil fuels on the environment. In 2017, then Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenburg announced changes to the country’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), a $10 billion AUD tax-funded loan facility which promoted investment in green technology. Under new regulations, the CEFC would be allowed to invest in ventures that previously did not meet its emissions targets, allowing the fund to be used to research carbon-capture and clean coal technology as well as help finance the construction of new coal power-plants. Many expressed outrage over what was seen as a blatant attempt to prop up the coal and natural gas industries at the expense of more sustainable energy sources.
The Renewable Energy Target (RET) has been a bright spot for the nation’s energy sector. By providing financial benefits for households and companies that installed renewable energy, the RET was created to promote investment in renewables and help reduce overall emissions. A successful nationwide implementation led to noticeable drops in emissions and prices, with the Renewable Energy Target now being seen as the catalyst for a renewable energy transition.
However, with the RET’s end date looming, politicians looked to find it a suitable replacement that would ensure Australia continues to build upon renewables and cutting emissions at a rate compatible with the Paris Agreement. The Morrison government revealed they have no plans to implement a new renewable energy policy and when queried about it, current Energy Minister and renewable energy and climate change skeptic Angus Taylor told Parliament: “The truth of the matter is the renewable energy target is going to wind down from 2020, it reaches its peak in 2020, and we won’t be replacing that with anything.”
The previous administration had already discussed implementing a National Energy Guarantee (NEG), to replace the Renewable Energy Target. The NEG would merge energy reliability and a reduction in carbon emissions and could be used to help transition the nation away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. However, it was criticized for not being ambitious enough by energy experts and was seen as a government ploy to protect coal-fired power stations whilst flaunting an eco-friendly tag.
A study commissioned by Greenpeace Australia illustrated the issues with the NEG, showing that wholesale power prices would increase over time despite an initial drop and ensure no change in the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy portfolio. In an interview with The Guardian, Oliver Yates, the former head of the CEFC expressed his disappointment: “It’s absolutely of no benefit to the national transition away from emissions. [The NEG] doesn’t do anything other than create a stable emissions profile for existing coal-fired power stations.”
Mr. Yates also pointed out the fact that under the NEG, polluting utility companies had a decade to reduce their emissions and that there was no mention of additional implementation of renewable energy projects. Amidst criticism from all sides, the NEG was abandoned, leaving many worried that a transition away from fossil fuels may not happen. In August last year, the Energy Security Board warned that without the RET or the NEG, Australia was set to fall short of its emissions target.
An Inconvenient Truth
Despite successive governments assuring the Australian public that the country was doing its best to reduce emissions, the numbers have revealed an inconvenient truth. A 2018 report by the Climate Action Tracker concluded that: “Australia’s emissions from fossil fuels and industry continue to rise and, based on the most recent quarterly inventory, are now 6% above 2005 levels and increasing at around 1% since 2014. Under current policies, these emissions are headed for an increase of 9% above 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 15–17% decrease in these emissions required to meet Australia’s Paris Agreement target. This means Australia’s emissions are set to far outpace its ‘Insufficient’ 2030 target.”
The “Climate Change Election” was meant to change Australia’s environmental future – and it certainly has. Since being re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison has retained Angus Taylor as the nation’s Energy Minister, suggesting that his government does not intend to put forth any new strong environmental policies. A country itself already experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, suffering from drought, coral bleaching of an unprecedented scale, loss of biodiversity as well as poor environmental management, Australia has positioned itself at odds with global trends.
Where nations are cutting emissions and investing in cleaner futures, Australia has reduced funding for climate change solutions and refused to commit to additional emissions cutbacks. Whilst politicians can continue to posture and engage in doublespeak, the impacts of climate change will continue to be felt. The Australian government’s lack of interest in being part of a global solution regarding climate change should not be seen as a new development, but rather one of its many examples of hubris.