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Australia’s dismal climate record comes under spotlight after global summit

LONDON — Days before arriving in Glasgow, Scotland, for what was billed as a pivotal gathering on global climate initiatives, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his country was adopting a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050

But he added that he would not legislate the goal and instead would rely on consumers and companies to drive reductions in emissions. 

It was the kind of half measure that climate activists worried would carry over to the COP26 summit, the recent United Nations climate talks in Glasgow. They said it did.

“Australia’s ambition for COP26 was to get away with it. To do as little as possible,” said Richie Merzian, who previously spent a decade as an Australian government COP negotiator and now works as the climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute,  an independent public policy think tank.  

Fondly known as the  sunburned country due to its vast stretches of dry and barren terrain, Australia has long been under fire as one of the world’s top producers of coal and gas, and narrowly dodged being labeled the summit’s villain. 

While the country remains a key U.S. ally amid tensions with China, it has done little in recent years to suggest it will be a leading partner in the fight against climate catastrophe, despite its pride in its abundant native wildlife and numerous environmental treasures. Its actions at the climate conference did little to assuage environmentalists’ concerns.

Critics say Australia’s net zero announcement was a hollow promise and that the country’s attendance at the global summit only showed that the current conservative government is more wedded to fossil fuel interests than tackling climate change in any substantive way. 

“They wanted to neutralize the critique that they aren’t doing anything on climate” by showing up but did little beyond that, Merzian said in a phone interview from Glasgow during the closing days of the summit. 

David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, was also scathing in his criticism of how Australia fared at the climate summit. 

Nov. 24, 202101:02

“The position the Morrison government took to Glasgow was an embarrassment, deeply inadequate, and wildly insufficient as the climate crisis accelerates in front of our eyes,”  he said in an email from Sydney after the summit.

NBC News reached out to  Morrison’s office for comment and was referred to public comments by Angus Taylor, the minister for industry, energy and emissions reduction.

“Under our Plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we will act in a practical, responsible way to reduce emissions and build on our track record of achievement — reducing emissions while growing our economy, maintaining affordable, reliable energy and ensuring our regions remain strong. That’s the Australian way,” Taylor said in a joint statement with Marise Payne, the minister for foreign affairs, after the climate summit. 

Caught between the powerful fossil fuel industry and a cascade of natural disasters, climate change has found its way to the heart of Australian politics.

Mining has been a major driving force in Australia’s economy since it was a British colony in the early 1800s, but coal production truly expanded after World War II and the industry is still a major employer in many rural communities. 

The country is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis and ranks as the world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia

In Glasgow, Australia came under criticism for not signing onto agreements such as the so-called Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement promoted by the United Kingdom or the global methane Pledge led by the  United States in an effort to curb methane emissions.

Firefighters battle one of Australia’s devastating wildfires in Hillville in November 2019.Sam Mooy / Getty Images file

Coal 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 language of the COP26 deal and replacing a commitment to “phase out” coal with the term “phase down.” 

And despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertion that Glasgow had effectively sounded “the death knell for coal power,” Morrison reiterated his country’s commitment in the wake of the summit, saying the coal industry will be working 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 driving ambition like the U.S. and the U.K.

“They are giving cover to other laggards like Russia and Turkey because they can look at Australia and say, ‘Look, if a wealthy industrialized country like Australia isn’t doing more in the short term, why should I?’” he said. 

Morrison has long been caught in a political bind over climate change. 

His government’s coalition partner, the National Party, is a strong supporter of the coal industry and made multiple attempts to block the  net zero target, citing potential risks to the country’s economy. 

Morrison is a well-known proponent of the industry himself. He famously brought a lump of coal into the Australian Parliament  in 2017 and, with a showman’s flair, praised its value during a debate on renewable energy.

“Sadly, historically, Australia’s climate policy, to some extent, has been dictated by the position of incumbent interests in the oil, gas and coal industry” and that is why it has lagged behind it’s global peers, Christian Downie, an associate professor at the Australian National University who specializes in energy and climate politics, said ahead of the conference.

At the same time, the country has felt the impact of climate change and that has helped increase pressure from some voters for more decisive action.

Sixty percent of respondents said “global warming is a serious and pressing problem” that should be addressed now “even if it involves significant costs,” according to a May 2021 poll by the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Australia.

Australia’s devastating 2019-20 wildfires were declared among the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history” by the World Wild Fund for Nature.Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images file

Catastrophic wildfires in 2019-20 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 were killed or displaced by the wildfires, according to the World Wide Fund For Nature Australia. 

And the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, has suffered so much from warming sea temperatures that it lost half its corals in just 20 years. 

Australia reacted angrily when the United Nations threatened to downgrade the reef’s World Heritage status unless the country did more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, narrowly avoiding the designation after heavy lobbying. 

Yet, Australia ranked last out of 60 countries for its policy response to the climate crisis in one assessment released at the COP26 summit. 

“The country’s lack of domestic ambition and action has made its way to the international stage,” the Climate Change Performance Index report said. “Australia has fallen behind its allies.” 

A spokesperson for Taylor, the minister for energy and emissions reduction, said that the Australian government “rejects” the report’s “subjective” findings “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 Nov. 17 by abseiling off the huge machinery and declaring in a video livestream: “This is us responding to the climate crisis.” 

To Ritter, from Greenpeace Australia, it’s past time for the country to step up on 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.”

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