Australia’s Deceptive Play

Anna Heyward | December 9, 2015.

Despite its recent endorsement of limiting warming to 1.5°C, Australia is protecting its right to unchecked burning of fossil fuels.

According to an independent assessment released during the Paris conference, Australia is one of the very worst performing states for action on climate change. In the 58-state report, only oil giants Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia ranked worse.

Australia’s political commitment has not resulted in policy adjustments. The Climate Action Tracker recently rated Australia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC, as ‘inadequate,’ and likely to cause temperatures to rise between 3-4°C above pre-industrial levels.

Instead of focusing on climate change mitigation, Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, mentioned emissions reductions only once during her allotted time at the high-level segment. Innovation is the main thrust of what Australia has brought to Paris, and Bishop spoke of “innovation and entrepreneurship” as “the solution.”

This week the Australian government launched a new innovation and science agenda to fund research and development in universities and the private sector. The government plans to research potential technologies that reduce the carbon intensity of burning fossil fuels.

This sums up Australia’s climate agenda – to use fossil fuels at a steady rate, until, some time in the future, an alternative becomes available. “Barring some technological breakthrough, fossil fuels will remain critical to promoting prosperity, growing economies, alleviating hunger for years to come,” Bishop said in Paris on Tuesday.  

Bishop’s reference to “some technological breakthrough” sounds vague and inexact, especially given the government’s commitment to limiting the global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. This is because the commitment may have simply been a political manoeuvre.

In a compromise negotiated with Saint Lucia and South Africa, countries vulnerable to climate change, Australia committed to the 1.5°C target in exchange for being able to use credits from the first Kyoto Protocol commitment period, and to apply them to the second commitment period. Effectively, Australia has ensured that its commitments under the second period of Kyoto won’t be much different from the first.

“We’ve met our first commitment period, are on track to meet second, and will ratify the second Kyoto protocol,” Bishop reminded the plenary at the UN climate talks.

Bishop’s affirmation that “Australia is taking strong and direct action at home,” does not refer to reducing Australia’s burgeoning emissions. Rather, it refers to funding the academic and private sector. Research is not inherently a bad thing, but by itself is a mere token contribution to climate change mitigation given the advanced technologies already available to Australia. The championing of this measure above more immediate strategies represents the Australian government giving itself permission to continue to burn fossil fuels indefinitely until “revolutionary” technology is invented. This is a distant hope, not a concrete plan. 

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