Australia - missing in action as nations step up for COP26

Australia - wealthy G20 member with higher per-capita emissions than the US, and higher emissions than the UK, despite a population half the size. So why haven't they committed to net-zero yet?

By Tricia Curmi


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As diplomatic preparations for COP26 gear in, where will Australia land in terms of climate ambition? If history is anything to go by, Australia is likely to be at the back of the international pack.

The country’s repeal of a successful economy wide carbon price, expanding fossil fuel exports and penchant for derailing international climate talks have earnt it a reputation as a climate laggard. Without pressure from friends to ratchet climate ambition, Australia’s poor climate track record will continue in Glasgow.

Australia has the highest per-capita emissions in the OECD, and emits more greenhouse gases than 40 countries with bigger populations including the UK, Italy, and France. It is the largest exporter of coal and of liquified natural gas (LNG) and according to Australia Institute research the third largest exporter of fossil fuels – behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. Rather than plan a just transition from these industries, Australian Governments continue to expand fossil fuel extraction and exports. In the most recent financial year, Australia’s federal and state government’s dished out a staggering AU$10.3 billion (5.5 billion pounds) to subsidise fossil fuel use and production.

It was therefore unsurprising, when Australia was ranked last for climate action out of 193 United Nations member countries in the Sustainable Development Report 2021. The country is no stranger to such poor climate policy scorecards. It ranked second last on climate policy in the most recent Climate Change Performance Index, (beaten only by President Trump’s USA).

Boris Johnson & Scott Morrison in Downing Street | Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street | June 2021
Boris Johnson & Scott Morrison in Downing Street | Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street | June 2021

Australia’s Prime Minister claims his country meets and beats its climate targets. This is true. Unfortunately, much of Australia’s ‘success’ has been achieved through unambitious targets and creative accounting. During the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, Australia negotiated an 8% increase in its emission (in the first period 2008-2012) off a very generous baseline and followed it up with a decrease of just 0.5% in the second period (2012-2020).

To make matters worse, Australia tried to bank its surplus credits under the Kyoto Protocol and use them to offset (and therefore avoid) any actual emissions reductions required under the Paris Agreement period (2021-2030). This approach was widely condemned by Australian law professors as legally baseless and by the international community as cheating. It also helped derail discussions on Article 6 (market mechanisms) at COP24 in Madrid.

Another example of Australia’s creative accounting occurred at President Biden’s Leaders Climate Summit in April 2021. Prime Minister Morrison proudly announced that the country had reduced emissions by 19% on 2005 levels, and by 36% when you “exclude exports.” Leaving aside the patently absurd claim that you can ignore emissions involved in fossil fuel production if those fuels are exported, the 19 per cent figure is also misleading. When pandemic impacts, historical land sector changes and the effects of the drought (ironically a climate change impact) are removed it becomes evident that Australian emissions rose 7% and among the worst in the developed world.

Australian emissions compared to those of the UK, US and EU, since 2005
Australian emissions compared to those of the UK, US and EU, since 2005

How to help Australia help itself

The Climate of the Nation Report (Australia’s longest continuous survey of community attitudes to climate change) shows that Australian’s want their Government to show leadership on climate action. So how can other nations encourage Australia to step up?

Pointing out Australia’s unique susceptibility to climate change impacts has not worked. When Bushfires ravaged Australia in December 2019, Australia’s Minister for Energy did not mention them during his plenary speech at COP25. In June this year, when UNESCO recommended the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the World Heritage Committee’s ‘in danger’ list, the Australian Government feigned surprise and quickly shifted the blame.

Ayanadak123, 2018 | Great Barrier Reef near Airlie beach, Queensland | Wikimedia Commons
Ayanadak123, 2018 | Great Barrier Reef near Airlie beach, Queensland | Wikimedia Commons

Allowing Australia to sit on the margins of climate diplomacy too, has failed. G7 leaders recently agreed to increase their 2030 targets, lock in net zero by 2050 and end overseas coal financing. Despite attending the G7 as a guest, Australia did not sign the climate statement. Two days later Prime Minister Morrison told a conference of oil and gas corporations in Perth that they will “always” be a major contributor to Australia’s prosperity and his government will always back them.

To successfully bring climate laggards like Australia to the table at COP26, international pressure will need to be direct, forceful, and targeted. When countries directly called out Australia for obstructing progress on Article 6 negotiations at COP25 – that had an impact (later leading to Australia dropping its surplus Kyoto credits claim). When Prime Minister Boris Johnson denied Australia a speaking slot at the leader’s climate ambition summit in December 2020 – that had an impact. The concrete proposal for an EU carbon border adjustment mechanism – that had an impact.

It will take strong and targeted diplomatic pressure from friends and allies for Australia to step up on climate policy. Anything less will see the Australian Government creatively and ably maintain the status quo.


Richie Merzian is the inaugural Climate & Energy Program Director at independent think tank, The Australia Institute. Richie worked at the Department of Climate Change and the Department of Foreign Affairs for almost a decade on both domestic and international climate and energy agendas. While at the Australian Government, he was the lead negotiator on adaptation to the UNFCCC and helped coordinate the Green Climate Fund Board during Australia’s tenure as Co-Chair.

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