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A new government hopes to transform Australia’s reputation into a climate leader at COP27. But there’s a lot of damage to unpick.

The new government in Australia was swept to power on a wave of public concern on climate change : School Strike 4 Climate (Flickr) CC 2.0 The new government in Australia was swept to power on a wave of public concern on climate change : School Strike 4 Climate (Flickr) CC 2.0

A new government hopes to transform Australia’s reputation into a climate leader at COP27. But there’s a lot of damage to unpick.

Australia has a long-standing reputation as a climate laggard. Over the past nine years of Liberal-National Coalition government, Australia has routinely appeared near the bottom of the Climate Change Performance Index, an independent monitoring tool for tracking the climate protection performance of 60 countries and the EU.

The election of a new Labor government in May 2022 raises the question: will Australia be reborn as a climate leader at the next United Nations climate change conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt? 

At COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, Australia was the only major developed country to resist the requirement to strengthen its 2030 target, set in 2015, to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels. Nor did Australia sign the voluntary pledge to reduce methane emissions or the statement in support of the clean energy transition, which included an end to public finance for new fossil fuel projects. Instead, the Australian pavillion at COP26 became a talking point for hosting a major Australian gas company.

In 2018, the Coalition government halted Australia’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a multilateral fund designed to assist developing countries with the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change. The US (under President Trump) is the only other OECD country to have suspended payments to this fund. The Biden administration has since reinstated them.

The new Labor government, led by Anthony Albanese, is clearly seeking to repair Australia’s reputation at COP27. It has raised Australia’s 2030 emission reduction target to 43 percent and formally updated Australia’s national pledge, known as its nationally determined contributions (NDC). This target has also been enshrined in new legislation. The government has also stepped up its efforts to promote renewable energy and green manufacturing in its Powering Australia plan and announced it would sign onto the global methane pledge. 

The government is also making an audacious bid to co-host the COP in 2026 with its Pacific Island neighbours. A draft of this plan was strongly endorsed by Pacific island leaders at the Pacific Island Forum in July.

Those states in competition with Australia to host the 2026 COP could argue Australia should not be allowed to upset the normal processes of selecting hosts, especially given its poor track record. The new 43 percent target still hovers well below the OECD average, including its key ally the US, which is aiming for 50-52 percent.  

Under the climate regime’s burden-sharing principles of equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and respective capacities, Australia should be shouldering a significantly larger share of emissions reductions and finance provision. Australia is the thirteenth highest historical emitter, the fifteenth highest aggregate emitter and the fourth highest cumulative per capita emitter in the world. Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of both coal and liquified natural gas. 

Yet successive Coalition and Labor governments, including the new Albanese government, have continued to support investment in new gas projects and fossil fuel export industries despite warnings in 2021 by the traditionally conservative International Energy Agency that there can be no new investment in coal, oil or gas if the energy sector is to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Indeed, analysis has  shown the new gas projects supported by the Albanese government are likely to make a mockery of its increased mitigation effort.

At COP27, the key focus will be on implementation, since the Paris rule book is now finalised, save for some technical details on international carbon markets. Climate finance will yet again be a hot button issue. Despite promising to raise US$100 billion annually by 2020, developed countries are still around US$10 billion short of this mark. Many developed nations’ contributions are conditional on receiving financial assistance with mitigation and adaptation to climate change, so raising more contributions is crucial to implementing the Paris Agreement.  

COP27 will also include a new dialogue on loss and damage in response to growing pressure from states that are most vulnerable to the harmful impacts of climate change but the least responsible for emissions and the least capable of adapting.  The Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Vulnerable Twenty group (V20), made up of 58 countries representing 1.5 billion people, have launched a ‘payment overdue’ campaign directed at the world’s biggest emitters. Eight Pacific Island nations are members of the V20.

Yet so far there have been no announcements from the new Labor government relating to climate finance, or loss and damage. However, in its first budget the Labor government announced it would contribute an additional A$1 billion towards development aid and security assistance in the Pacific, which is also a response to China’s increasing presence in the region. It is not yet clear how much of this aid will be targeted at mitigation and adaption. Under previous governments, Australia had become an increasingly awkward partner in the Pacific Islands Forum because of climate change so this announcement, along with the bid to co-host the 2026 COP with the Pacific, signals a dovetailing of Australia’s climate action with its strategic priorities. 

Climate leadership and laggardship are relational. While the new government has improved Australia’s target relative to the previous one, it remains a laggard because other developed countries have strengthened theirs over the same period. 

It could be argued that allowing Australia to host the 2026 COP would give it the incentive to lift its performance much further. COP hosts are typically under intense pressure to set a positive example. Many previous hosts (though not all) have stepped up their national climate action and diplomacy under the glare of international publicity. 

The next Australian federal election must take place before or in 2025, which is the year the next round of climate targets for 2035 are due. If selected to host the 2026 COP,  if it signals a dramatically higher target for 2035, if it reinstates contributions to the Green Climate Fund by COP27, and if it puts an end to new fossil fuel projects, Australia can be reborn as a climate leader.  

Robyn Eckersley is the Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in Political Science in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She has published widely on climate politics, policy and governance and has followed the climate negotiations for three decades. She declares no conflict of interest 

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “COP27” sent at: 31/10/2022 09:58.

This is a corrected repeat.

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