Australian politicians tend to see their country as a startling innovator nourished by exceptional gifts. Progressive nostalgic types bore you, often inaccurately, about the origins of universal suffrage and this charming image of a penal colony turned enlightened philosopher. Romantics are keen to draw you to the idea of egalitarianism, suggesting that class plays little to no role.
The modern Australian contribution to global politics is equally startling and impressively retrograde. The state has been a pioneer of offshore detention centres and criminalising the right to asylum. In environmental policy, climate change as a term has been suppressed and co-opted in the nation’s culture wars. International fora and summits have often featured efforts on the part of Australian diplomats to water down proposals that might be seen with disfavour by fossil fuel industries.
The climate change conference in Glasgow was always going to be a cerebral challenge for the great anti-innovators of the Antipodes. The fossil fuel adorers in the National Party had already made it clear to Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia’s commitments would have to be minimal and imprecise.
Morrison, accordingly, lived down to expectations. He turned up, predictably, with a package of bafflement, a brochure beribboned and free of substance. It was called the Australian Way. ‘Australians want a 2050 plan on net zero emissions that does the right thing on climate change and secures their future in a changing world’, he promised on 26 October, the eve of the conference. ‘They also want a plan that is fair and practical.’ This would mean no ‘blank cheque commitment to impose new taxes, as Labor has, to achieve net zero’. Paternalistically, he would ‘shield’ the Australian people from ‘major changes in the global economy that will impact on Australia’s future prospects’—code for the realisation that the country was being left behind.
The Australian Way meant ‘technology, not taxes’. The airy assumption here is based upon technology that has yet to bear fruit and upon a total absence of modelling and detail. It entailed ‘respecting people’s choices and not enforcing mandates on what people can do and buy’. There would be transparency—not something the Morrison government is famed for—in the quest. And besides, Australia had already ‘beat’ targets—the 2020 emission reduction target—and was well on the way to doing so for 2030.
Morrison’s national statement at Glasgow reiterated the theme of technology as salvation: ‘Driving down the cost of technology and enabling it to be adopted at scale is at the core of the Australian Way to reach our target of net zero emissions by 2050 that we are committing to at this COP26’. Cleaner technology solutions had to ‘outcompete existing technologies if they are to be successful everywhere, especially so in developing economies’.
The Australian Way document is impressively shoddy. It is an exercise in relentless delusion and self-praise. ‘We have reduced emissions faster than any comparable economies’, it boasts. ‘Our technology-driven plan sets out a credible pathway to net zero by 2050, while preserving our existing industries, establishing Australia as a leader in emerging low emissions and positioning our regions to prosper.’
This astonishing piffle means that Australia remains unburdened by any commitments except the 2030 target of emission reductions of 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels. It will continue to remain a leader in carbon emissions, releasing some 17 metric tonnes per person each year. Coal mines will continue to be approved by environment ministers, those perennial foxes who guard chicken coops.
The Australian Way was duly skewered by some critics. Lord Deben, chair of the UK government’s Climate Change Committee, deemed it ‘a great disappointment to the rest of the world that so good a country with so much history should have been so much behind on these issues’. Choices, he suggested, would be made for Australians. ‘Already the British-Australian trade deal is under huge pressure in this country, because we don’t see why we should be importing from Australia unless Australia meets the same standards.’ But the crucial factor here was one of comprehension. With dagger-like precision, Lord Deben suggested that Morrison genuinely lacked understanding about ‘the urgency of what we have to do’.
Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of the technology firm Atlassian, was also unsparing in his summation of the 129-page pamphlet. ‘It’s not worth the paper I didn’t print it on.’ Far from being a ‘technology driven approach’, it entailed ‘inaction, misdirection and avoiding choices’.
Not that Australia’s attitude was singular. COP26 has proven to be a story of disparate realities. The conference centre, for instance, was marked by instances of aggressive greenwashing and undertakings that chimed with the ‘Australian Way’. The virtues of the market and business efforts to address decarbonisation challenges were extolled. ‘Huge suspicion around the corporate takeover of the climate agenda swirled’, noted Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies, ‘with much commentary on the double standards of the UK hosts, still proposing a new coalmine and oilfield as part of a so-called “transition”’.
On the commitments front, Australia did not count itself among over forty states who pledged to move away from coal and promised to end investment in new coal-power generation both domestically and internationally. Then again, neither did the United States, China or India. But in any case the pledge may not be as inspiring as it first appears: Juan Pablo Osornio, head of the COP26 Greenpeace delegation, suggested that ‘enormous leeway’ was granted to countries ‘to pick their own phase-out date, despite the shiny headline’. Wealthier countries could do so sometime in the 2030s, while developing states could opt for a time in the 2040s.
Australia also found itself keeping company with Russia, China, Iran and India in not wishing to cut methane by a 2030 target of 30 per cent. The logic of Australia’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, proved vague: ‘We’ve got a net-zero goal, we’re not setting sector specific targets, and we aren’t setting gas specific targets’.
Since Morrison’s return, the illusion has continued. Electric cars, the demon beasts condemned by the prime minister as having the potential to ruin the weekends of Australians, are now being encouraged, if only in half-baked terms. In time, the Australian Way will be shown to be incompatible with most Other Ways. By then, Australia will have fewer Pacific neighbours, fewer species, a more diminished ecosystem, and ever more savage cyclones, droughts and bushfires. In the meantime, an election remains to be called, with imaginative policy the enemy.
David Ritter, Jun 2021
The reality is that none of our cherished futures are possible if the burning of coal, oil and gas remains business as usual; the fond horizon will be a bitter mirage for as long as the Fossil Fuel Order stands.