UN ranks Australia last on climate in sustainability goals

July 21, 2021

The United Nations Sustainable Development Report 2021, released in June, designated Australia as having done the least out of 193 countries to combat climate change.

This UN body tracks the progress of member states in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including climate, nutrition, biodiversity, education and renewable energy.

If all the goals are included, Australia ranked 35th because it scored higher on health, education, clean water and some economic indicators.

But the report singled out Australia as one of seven G20 nations that had not committed to net zero emissions by 2050 or 2060.

Sustainable Development Goal 13 stipulates that member countries must take “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has insisted his government is “preferably” aiming for net zero by 2050, but refuses to give a road map.

SDG action is measured by per capita emissions from fossil fuel combustion; per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions embodied in imports; per capita CO2 emissions embodied in exports and carbon pricing score. Australia scored 10 out of 100.

The scores provide a quantifiable way to analyse why Australia ranks last in the fight against climate change. It has received similarly poor results in other studies, including the Climate Change Performance Index 2021, in which it was ranked 54th out of 61 countries.

Exports and emissions

These low scores are the result of Australia becoming the largest coal exporter last year (followed by Indonesia, Russia, United States and South Africa) accounting for 39.5% of global exports.

It has been the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) since 2019,. While gas is promoted as a “transition” fuel, it has significant health risks including being linked to neurological, reproductive and cardiovascular problems. LNG also releases methane, which is 84 times more potent than CO2.

Last year, Australia’s emissions from exported coal were almost double its domestic emissions. If exports had been included, it would be the fifth-highest emitter globally.

Even without including its exports, Australia is among the top 20 greenhouse gas emitters. Despite China’s current restrictions on Australian coal, exports continue to rise. Thermal coal (for electricity) and metallurgical coal (for steel) exports to India rose by 167% in April.

New fossil fuel projects

The government refuses to commit to climate action and is supporting the surge in new coal mines. Moreover, 118 new gas and oil projects are estimated to start by 2025.

The 23 new coal mines planned for New South Wales will be the equivalent of 15 times the Adani Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland. 

New major coal mines include: New Acland Stage 3 (NSW); Winchester South (Queensland); Olive Downs (Queensland); the Galilee Coal and Rail Project (Queensland); Alpha Coal Project and South Galilee Coal Project (Queensland).

Adani’s new coal-to-plastic plant in India, which will be very polluting, plans to use coal sourced from Queensland.

New major gas fields include: Burrup Hub (WA); Beetaloo Basin (NT), Narrabri Gas Project (NSW), Surat Gas Project (Queensland), Barossa gas field (Timor Sea) and Greater Sunrise gas field (Timor Sea).

If these major fossil fuel projects are allowed to proceed, even the government's weak climate goals will be decimated. Woodside Energy’s Burrup Hub project would be the most polluting project ever. Its annual carbon pollution would equal 15 coal-fired power stations.

These fossil fuel projects, pushed by coal and gas behemoths with the help of the major parties, will release a fatal amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

A UN report leaked in June warned about how devastating tipping points — where temperatures trigger a chain of disastrous climate events — will be on our health and welfare.

The close links between the major parties and the fossil fuel corporations are well established, and provide the context for the government’s climate denialism.

According to the Centre for Public Integrity, 35% of all contributions to the major parties come from sources unknown, thanks to Australia's weak disclosure threshold.

Minister for Energy and Emission Reduction Angus Taylor recently made Katherine Vidgen, a founding chair of oil and gas producer Quadrant Energy, the new Clean Energy Regulator.

Keith Pitt, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, handed out three grants, totalling $21 million, to serial Liberal donor Imperial Oil and Gas to drill for gas in the Beetaloo Basin. Imperial Oil and Gas is a subsidiary of Empire Energy whose chairperson, Paul Espie, also chairs the Liberal Party-aligned Menzies Research Centre.

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