Australia’s climate change vulnerability and inaction

You would think a country where the entire state of New South Wales, responsible for a quarter of their agricultural output, is currently in drought and where water scarcity threatens their long-term viability as a country wouldn’t be such a climate change villain. Their wildfires keep worsening and their most important river is drying up. Alas, as with Canada’s oil-selling obsession, Australia seems more concerned about selling as much coal as possible to China as with maintaining a habitable continent.

Even without factoring in such exports, their emissions of greenhouse gas pollution have been steadily rising since 2013 after a period of general decline going back to 2005. Perhaps that’s unsurprising as they repealed their carbon tax in 2014.

This ties into a frightening possibility: as the most vulnerable rich countries are hit harder and harder by climate change they may not draw the lesson that international cooperation is necessary, retreating instead into self-defeating selfishness.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

66 thoughts on “Australia’s climate change vulnerability and inaction”

  1. Malcolm Turnbull removes all climate change targets from energy policy in fresh bid to save leadership

    Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has staged another dramatic retreat on energy policy in the face of a dire threat to his leadership, removing climate change targets from the National Energy Guarantee in his second policy reset in four days.

    The revised scheme will go ahead without federal legislation to stipulate a 26 per cent cut to greenhouse gas emissions under changes aimed at averting a challenge from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

  2. Australia Wilts From Climate Change. Why Can’t Its Politicians Act?

    SYDNEY, Australia — Mile after mile of the Great Barrier Reef is dying amid rising ocean temperatures. Hundreds of bush fires are blazing across Australia’s center, in winter, partly because of a record-breaking drought.

    The global scientific consensus is clear: Australia is especially vulnerable to climate change.

    And yet on Monday, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, abandoned a modest effort to reduce energy emissions under pressure from conservatives in his party. And on Tuesday, those same conservatives just missed toppling his government.

    What on earth is going on?

    Australia’s resistance to addressing climate change — by limiting emissions in particular — is well documented. Mr. Turnbull could yet be turned out of office as rivals rally support for another challenge as soon as Thursday. If that happens, he will be the third Australian prime minister in the last decade to lose the position over a climate dispute.

    Despite the country’s reputation for progressiveness on gun control, health care and wages, its energy politics seem forever doomed to devolve into a circus. Experts point to many reasons, from partisanship to personality conflicts, but the root of the problem may be tied to the land.

  3. ‘Silenced’: Leading reef research centre faces axe after funding miss

    One of the world’s premier coral reef research centres has failed to secure Australian Research Council funding, placing in doubt the science hub even as the Great Barrier Reef faces another bout of bleaching.

    The council confirmed in Senate estimate on Thursday that the Townsville-based Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies missed out on even making the funding shortlist for its next round of funding.

  4. Pacific nations under climate threat urge Australia to abandon coal within 12 years

    Frustrated leaders appeal to ‘all OECD countries’ to phase out use as Australia signals support for new plants

    Pacific countries vulnerable to climate change have urged Australia to abandon coal power generation within 12 years, and to prohibit new coal plants or expansion of existing plants.

    The call from 15 small Pacific island states came one day after the Australian government called for expressions of interest in new power generation projects, indicating it would be prepared to use taxpayer money to underwrite new coal plants.

    Leaders warned Australia’s relations in the Pacific were being eroded by a perceived intransigence in Canberra over coalmining.

    As the COP24 UN climate talks in Poland remained stalled over an unwillingness from major emitters to commit to further carbon emissions cuts, frustrated Pacific states, traditional allies of Australia, said the world must abandon coal-powered energy generation.

    The Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, the outgoing president of COP23, said: “We call on all OECD countries to quickly phase out their use of coal by 2030 and for all other countries to phase out their use of coal by 2040. There must be no expansion of existing coal mines or the creation of new mines.”

  5. Almost all of New South Wales, a state responsible for a quarter of Australia’s agricultural output by value, is parched. Trees have died, crops have withered, animals have shrunk to skeletons. In Coonabarabran, where water is strictly rationed, some residents have moved their washing machines outside so that the run-off can hose their gardens.

    Many farmers have been forced to send their animals to slaughter. The cull may leave the number of livestock in Australia at a record low; wheat yields could be the feeblest in a decade. Those like Mr Doolan who keep their animals alive at great expense are gamblers. They bet that when the rains return and other farmers start rebuilding, the value of their herds will soar. Previous droughts have taken about a percentage point off Australia’s growth rate. And the strain is not just economic: the suicide rate in the outback has risen sharply during the latest drought.

    But some city folk argue that taxpayers should not have to subsidise farmers in tough years, given that profits in good times can be enormous. The government has not matched emergency handouts with a long-term plan to cope with global warming. On a recent rural tour, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, suggested that farmers do not “care one way or the other” whether climate change contributes to the problem. His right-of-centre government has ditched a policy that would have enshrined emissions targets in law, all but abandoning goals set under the un’s Paris Agreement three years ago. Australia’s emissions have been rising.

  6. Bleaching, cyclones and infestations of crown-of-thorns starfish, which munch through coral, all damage parts of the reef from time to time. The amount of coral fluctuates depending on how often and how severely such adversity strikes. In the northern portion of the reef, in particular, coral cover is at the lowest level ever recorded. David Wachenfeld of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government agency responsible for its protection, says that the higher water temperatures brought on by global warming have led to more frequent bouts of bleaching, leaving the reef too little time to recover in between. Like the farmers of Western Australia, it is running out of resilience.

    Yet Australia still gets more than 60% of its power from coal, the fuel that does the most damage to the climate. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal. Per person, it generates more emissions than any other big economy bar America and Saudi Arabia. And unlike most rich countries, its emissions are growing.

  7. In the long term Australia’s coal industry may see a bifurcation, as exports rise for coking coal, which is crucial for the production of steel, and slump for thermal coal. Already, banks are limiting the amount of finance they make available for coal projects. Australia’s banks have also declined to underwrite a controversial plan by Adani, a firm based in the Indian state of Gujarat, to build what was once billed as Australia’s biggest thermal coal mine in the untapped Galilee Basin in northern Queensland.

    David Lennox, an analyst in Sydney, thinks “significant investment” in new coal mines will diminish over the next 30 years. Firms providing capital, he reckons, will see growth in gas and renewable-energy projects providing better returns “because they won’t have people protesting about them”. The Clean Energy Council, an industry body, cites investment of A$20bn ($14.3bn) in 83 renewable-energy projects already under way in Australia; a figure that has doubled since late 2017.

    However, the transition from coal to cleaner fuels may be slower than in other countries, because of the industry’s scale. Scott Morrison, prime minister in the conservative coalition government, gave a speech on climate change on February 25th, which he hopes will boost his political fortunes in an election due in May. But he did not mention coal at all. Mr Morrison has openly championed coal. When he was Treasurer two years ago, he waved a lump of it in parliament and declared: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid.” Perhaps he now is.

  8. Few rich countries are as severely affected by climate change as Australia. Storms and cyclones strike the tropical north with increasing ferocity, and droughts are hitting harder and for longer. Since the last federal vote, warming waters have killed much of the Great Barrier Reef.

    This summer seemed particularly apocalyptic. A million native fish washed up dead in the Darling river, part of Australia’s longest river system, which is drying out. Flooding in northern Queensland killed several people and half a million cattle. Fires ripped through the southern island of Tasmania, destroying ancient forests.

    One recent poll found that over 60% of voters believe that climate change presents a “critical threat” to Australia. Yet it is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, the fuel that causes the most pollution. Most of the country’s power is still generated by the stuff. Relative to its population, Australia produces more emissions than almost any other rich economy.

    Politicians have been at war over what to do about this for a decade. Labor lost two prime ministers to the problem before the Liberals came to power in 2013. The quagmire has since deepened. Tony Abbott, who was then the Liberal leader, axed a carbon tax introduced by Labor. His government also pared back a renewable-energy target and cut funding for climate science.

  9. In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking.

    Prime minister Scott Morrison continues to sing the praises of coal, while members of the government call for subsidies for coal-fired power plants. A few days ago, the energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, urged that the nation’s old and polluting coal-fired power plants be allowed to run “at full tilt”.

  10. Opposition leader Bill Shorten, tapped as the likely winner in the election, had proposed that Australia move away from exploiting its large coal reserves and instead take steps to generate half of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030. The move appeared to backfire electorally — especially in Queensland, where voters swung to the government in large numbers.

  11. Tony Abbott’s climate denial prompted Barack Obama’s Brisbane barbs

    Mr Abbott opened the summit with a speech in which he celebrated his success in ending Labor’s “carbon tax”, but hours later Mr Obama gave a speech at the University of Queensland in which he took a swipe at the Australian government line that coal lifted people out of poverty, and said developing economies should be helped to break free of the “false choice between development and pollution”.

    He noted the “incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened” and he wanted to be able to return to view it one day with his daughters.

    “We can get this done. And it is necessary to get this done,” he said.

  12. What will happen to our cities (and beaches) at 3 degrees of warming?

    Jungle turning to savannah. Homes swept away by rising seas and monster storms. The world is on track for 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century. What does that mean? And what can we do about it?

    Barrier Reef doomed as up to 99% of coral at risk, report finds

    The Great Barrier Reef is all but doomed, with between 70 and 99 per cent of corals set for destruction unless immediate “transformative action” is taken to reverse global warming, according to a new report.

    The Australian Academy of Science says the more ambitious target of the Paris Climate Agreement of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees has now slipped out of reach and is “virtually impossible”.

  13. The same realisation is dawning across Australia. Its three biggest export markets for fossil fuels—China, Japan and South Korea—have all recently pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century or just after. Another buyer of Australian coal, the Philippines, has banned new coal-fired power plants.

    The federal government, a right-wing coalition, appears in denial about this changing outlook. Scott Morrison, the prime minister, insists he is “not concerned about our future exports”. When ANZ, a bank, said in October that it would stop funding new coal mines, coal-loving MPs griped that it was “virtue-signalling” and called for a boycott. (Australia’s three other big banks had already pledged to steer clear of coal.) A government minister told pension funds, which are also selling sooty investments, that their goal should be to maximise returns and “not to change the earth’s temperature”.

  14. But in reality, Morrison will go to COP26, reluctantly, with the weakest climate plan among the G20’s developed nations. The leader has also ignored months of calls to increase the country’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is at around half that of the US’ pledge, and even further below the European Union’s and United Kingdom’s.
    After publishing a defiant op-ed to announce the policy, in which the leader said he “won’t be lectured by others who do not understand Australia,” Morrison told journalists that he didn’t even intend to put net zero into law.

  15. Australia’s climate policy is all talk and no trousers

    It relies too much on future technology and not enough on present action

    Mr Morrison’s government will not pass a law to enforce any cuts. Nor will it put a price on carbon, as a Labor government did between 2012 and 2014, before the scheme was ripped up by the conservatives. Instead, Mr Morrison’s vision rests on five principles, which boil down to hoping and praying. Apart from “technology not taxes” and “drive down the cost” of technology, the principles include keeping energy cheap, not insisting anybody do anything, and promising to be accountable for its progress.

    There is “no new money, no new policy and no credible plan”, says Tim Baxter of the Climate Council, an ngo. His organisation calculates that Australia is doing less to cut emissions than any other rich country. The government’s proposal, dating from Paris in 2015, aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26-28% by 2030 from 2005 levels, compared with the 50-52% that America promises. No matter, says Mr Morrison. Australia will surpass its goal, with reductions of about 30-35%. Yet for it to do its part to keep global temperatures below 2°C as it promised in Paris, it too would have to raise its target to at least 50%, according to the Climate Targets Panel, a group of scientists. Hitting 1.5°C would involve cutting by 74%.

    Australia’s intransigence matters for the rest of the world. Coal is still the source of most of the country’s electricity, accounting for a big chunk of its domestic emissions (see chart). Factoring in the vast quantities it exports, the country of just 25m people rises from the world’s 15th-biggest emitter of CO{-2} to its fifth. It is lobbying alongside other energy giants such as Saudi Arabia to weaken the un’s recommendations for phasing out fossil fuels.

    Less than half of people surveyed in another poll want coal-fired power to be phased out within a decade, and 44% would prefer to keep exporting the stuff until overseas demand dries up.

    The lack of alarm is all the stranger given that the continent feels the effects of climate change more acutely than many rich countries. It suffers crippling droughts and increasingly ferocious bushfires. Half its most prized natural treasure, the Great Barrier Reef, has been killed by warming waters. Islands in the Torres Strait, off its northern coast, are slipping into the sea.

  16. Australia passes a law to reduce emissions, at last

    That will not stop it from opening new coal mines

    The bill creates relatively deep, legally binding targets for emissions reductions. Future governments will either have to follow them or repeal the law. It commits Australia to slashing emissions by at least 43% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, and then to net zero by 2050. The previous conservative coalition government promised cuts of only 26-28% by 2030, and eschewed any legal binding.

    Backtracking is possible. When Australia brought in a carbon tax, in 2011, it was promptly repealed by the coalition. But the public mood has changed so much that the new law is likely to stick, says Frank Jotzo, a climate economist at the Australian National University. Australian businesses, which once thought Labor’s emissions targets would be “economy-wrecking”, now call for even bigger cuts.

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