Australia is a leading climate criminal, new report finds

Sydney students for climate action protest in March. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

A student-initiated global Climate Strike is being organised for September 20 to hit the headlines ahead of the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit in New York.

UN Secretary General António Guterres wants only those countries that can show “concrete, realistic plans” for reducing their carbon emissions to come along. But you can be sure the recalcitrants, such as Australia, will be there.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report, which admitted the UN body had underestimated the impact of global warming, said global emissions of carbon dioxide must begin falling by 2020 to keep the planet’s temperature at below 1.50C above pre-industrial levels.

However, the Paris Agreement, which came out of the 2015 UN climate conference, set the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at 45% over the next decade. It allows climate change denialist governments to continue with business-as-usual when the next 12 months are critical to putting in place plans to rapidly cut emissions.

Undermining the Paris Agreement

Under the agreement, Australia, which is a signatory country, can pretend to be on track to meet the weak targets by creatively accounting for its “emission reductions” as it oversees a huge growth of fossil fuel exports.

Australia’s domestic emissions have risen almost continually for two decades, and a large part of that comes down to coal mining. 

A new report has found Australia is now the world’s third biggest carbon dioxide exporter, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the fifth biggest miner of fossil fuels.

The report also found that Australia emits more greenhouse gases than 40 other countries with bigger populations. Per capita, Australia’s emissions are the highest in the OECD and, globally, only just behind the small petro-state of Qatar.

High Carbon from a Land Down Under, released by progressive think tank The Australia Institute (TAI), makes the case that as Australia is among the biggest fossil fuel exporters, it cannot be considered as a negligible contributor to the global climate crisis.

The TAI report undercuts the government’s argument that Australia is pulling its weight and makes the case that, with such high per capita emissions, it’s obligation on emissions reductions is very large.

It argues that Australia’s current emission reduction target undermines the spirit of the Paris Agreement, as it relies on using carry-over credits from the previous Kyoto Protocol.

And yet, despite this, the report notes “Australia is not on track to meet the target”.

Further, it says emissions are rising and are now back up to 2011 levels due to the push for new coal and gas plants.

And there is no doubt that emissions will keep rising if new mining projects - such as Adani’s coal mine in Queensland, just the first of up to 52 new thermal coal mines on the drawing board - are allowed to proceed.

There are also many large liquefied natural gas projects due to come online soon and 19 proposals for new projects or expansions, mostly offshore in the north and north-west, and a new push to fast track unconventional gas projects in the NT and NSW.

The report argues that Australia has the capability to phase out coal as it has a more diversified economy compared with other advanced countries. It notes that under the short-lived carbon price emissions fell by 2% while the economy grew by 5% between 2012-14.

It also refutes the argument that more coal mines bring more long-term jobs. Coal mining currently employs less than 0.5% of the Australian workforce, and this is set to further dwindle due to automation.

Bipartisan policy

Bipartisan support for fossil fuel energy is one of the biggest challenges the climate movement faces in this country.

Labor’s redefinition of itself as needing to be indistinguishable from the Coalition on critical policy issues such as the climate emergency makes it clear that parliament cannot be relied on for any real solutions.

Some say the world is on track for +30C warming by 2100, based on countries’ national contributions to the Paris Agreement. But this does not take into account carbon cycle feedbacks such as permafrost, the Amazon fires and other declines in carbon store efficiencies, which could push warming as high as 5oC.

In an August 18 post on Climate Code Red, David Spratt asks how many people would likely perish if temperature rose by 4%, and quotes Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Johan Rockström, who told the Guardian that, under such a scenario, “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that…

“There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world.”

This is the dark, but realistic, vision that has provoked the ire of student strikers.

We have a responsibility to convert the September 20 Climate Strike into a tipping point — one that begins to move us away from climate catastrophe.

Realising our collective power, and sustaining it, is the only realistic way to force the climate criminals out of the way.

The next 12 months are critical.

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