Climate Conference in the Hottest Year, Again: Australia’s Bid to Host COP31

The COP presidency, like most international roles, is rotated between regions. COP29 is allotted to Eastern Europe; however, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, many onlookers believe Germany will step in and play host. And with COP30 solidly claimed by Brazil, who will ‘champion’ 2026 and host the premiere international Conference of Parties COP31?

The United Nations stirs emotions like no other intergovernmental organisation. The yearly conferences, convened under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have a clear mandate to bring countries together to address the climate crisis, and as a result, frequently attract the lightning of frustration. Controversy, delays and false promises often mar the process inherent to the UNFCCC. Yet it is also the site of hard-fought-for successes and an international platform where frontline and marginalised communities find a voice. COP28 is no different.

This year we are once more witnesses to grand pledges in the hundreds of millions and saccharine self-adulation that rarely has any cause for celebration—but sometimes there are also breakthroughs. The operationalisation and backing of the Loss and Damages Fund is an example. It can be tempting to paint the process and the COPs in broad strokes: ineffective, critically flawed and so on and so on, and in many cases these criticisms are based on all too many past failings. COP28 and its UAE presidency are also highlighting the truly devastating shortcomings of a climate change conference being hosted by a state that is dependent on fossil fuels while simultaneously demonstrating a global interest in a just and liveable planet. And as a COP inevitably attracts intense interest from the world’s media, it is a singular moment that showcases the best and worst of a country.

Australia and a to-be-announced Pacific Island nation are, surprisingly, the frontrunners for the Western Europe and Others rotation (emphasis added), their bid publicly supported by the US and Switzerland. In speaking with other delegations here at COP28, the bid appears to be widely supported in private too.

Australia’s record on international environmental governance is chequered, to put it politely; however, with this year’s COP being hosted by a petrostate, maybe it makes more sense than at first glance, or at least tracks for the UNFCCC.

And how is Australia trying to win support for its COP31 bid? A tweet by the Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action that went viral during COP26 in Glasgow sums up its approach quite well. That year, the centrepiece of the Australia Pavilion was a model of carbon capture and storage (CCS), generously sponsored by Santos. With the enticement of free coffee, COP26 attendees queued up alongside exhibitions extolling the benefits of CCS. This year the Australian government is at it again, trying to grease conversations with the allure of free coffee. Touring the grounds ahead of COP28, I also found Wollongong University’s ‘Australian Pavilion’, complete with ‘Melbourne Lane’ coffee and an ‘Aussie Grill’ and ‘Aussie Bar’ nestled amid eucalyptus and spinifex foliage. Highlighted on a raised podium was a truly mythical icon: the Australian electric Toyota Hilux—a jarring decision shown in a new light when Greens Senator Janet Rice revealed in Senate Estimates that the government’s target of 87 per cent share of new EV car sales will actually look more like 27 per cent, with EVs accounting for an abysmal 5 per cent of vehicles on roads by 2030. On top of its lack of a fuel efficiency standard, the Australian government is seriously lagging in the EV rollout.

Photo by Sacha Shaw, 2023

The limitations of this year’s COP are in large part caused by the host country’s insistence on ‘including’ fossil fuels, using language ‘verging on climate change denial’. Can the world afford another climate conference hosted by yet another country with intimate links to the fossil fuel industry?

Anthony Burke, Professor of Environmental Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, suggests that the Pacific should not support Australia’s COP31 bid, saying the bid ‘lacks credibility because we remain one of the world’s largest exporters of coal … Our national policy is simply not aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement, and there is too great a risk we will use the event as a giant greenwashing exercise by a global climate criminal’.

Opinions on the ground at COP28 are more mixed. Tina Stege, the Climate Envoy for the Republic of Marshall Islands, said, ‘A COP co-hosted by Australia with the Pacific would be an opportunity to highlight the specific climate issues being faced by our region. But we aren’t blind to the fact that Australia is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters’. Likewise, Joseph Sikulu, Pacific Director of 350.org, was apprehensive about Australia’s bid for COP31 but also saw the potential benefits for Pacific representation at the international level, saying, ‘the Pacific supporting Australia’s for a COP bid makes a lot of sense in many ways. Coming to COP is so expensive, so we are not able to bring all our people who should be here to these conversations … the Pacific is always outnumbered. Always an uphill battle, so being able to bring COP closer to home, will mean, more people will be able to come, more voices be in that space’.

Support from Pacific countries would be essential to legitimising Australia’s COP31 bid. But both Tina and Joseph need to see much more leadership from the Australian government, and particularly a clear position on the phasing out of fossil fuels. Chris Bowen, Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Minister, will be in the UAE this week and is unlikely to be arguing for it. He will not be alone in that position either: countries will have to agree to a ‘global stocktake’ document this year, but a clear statement on phasing out fossil fuels is unlikely.

As COP28 enters its second week and world leaders start flying out of the UAE, leaving their ministers and envoys to wrangle over the wording and final announcements, a cautionary note: thumbnail commentary and absolute pronouncements about whether COP28 was a success, or a failure will overlook a complicated picture, because it was both.

Photos by Sacha Shaw, 2023

About the author

Sacha Shaw

Sacha is a freelance journalist and writer with a keen interest in climate and international affairs. Publications include The Diplomat, ABC Religion and Ethics Report and Pearls and Irritations.

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