Six years ago, I was one of hundreds of official delegates who stood in a makeshift UN plenary hall at Le Bourget when the Paris agreement was adopted after years of negotiations.
It was then, and may well remain, the most important thing I have ever been part of in my life.
Unfortunately, my own country has now shown that it is prepared to break both the letter and the spirit of the very agreement to which it has signed. This is particularly infuriating given the extent to which Australia has gone to Paris to line up with those fighting for the strongest deal possible.
With the events of the past week, the Morrison government has shown that it just isn’t doing what it says on the world stage. Our climate indifference is not only reckless for our economy, our environment and our people. It is also reckless for our diplomacy, as Morrison’s visit to Glasgow will certainly now demonstrate.
There are four critical promises made by Australia in Paris that it has now broken. These weren’t just handshake agreements, they were international laws.
First, Australia agreed that each country should come back to the COP26 table to ensure that the short-term goals set for this decade represent “the highest possible ambition”. This is what Glasgow is and more than 100 countries have now made new commitments for 2030 looking ahead, including the United States which we initially set as a benchmark for our own ambition.
Instead, the Morrison government quietly briefed the UN on New Years Eve last year (when most officials weren’t even working and most Australians were too busy lighting their barbecues to care. ) that they did not intend to honor this promise. The government’s latest decision not to even align our current target with our new projections is a totally blind decision. It wouldn’t even have required them to do an extra ounce, but at least it would have demonstrated that they understood their international obligations.
Australia has also ignored its pledge to deliver on the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of achieving net zero emissions globally by 2050.
Even by Yes Minister’s standards, calling the government’s net zero pamphlet a “plan” is courageous.
There are no new policies, no concrete way to get there, no cap on fossil fuels and no details. All the heavy lifting rests either on the hope of future technologies or on the use of carbon credits (in fact accounting tricks that do nothing for the planet).
A true net zero plan would involve detailed and transparent modeling, be enshrined in legislation, and be associated with an independent statutory process to establish our short-term goals along the way. This is what the Conservative government in the UK has done, along with our friends across Tasmania and more and more in the Pacific.
It was here in the Pacific that Australia most sensationally broke a third promise under the Paris Agreement: to channel our climate finance through a single global mechanism within the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to make it easier for those on the front lines of this climate crisis. . After following the Trump administration to the GCF’s door, we have yet to come back with our tail between our legs, which means that we are effectively isolated among the major donor countries.
Those who point to the need for further short-term action from China are right to do so. But those who ignore Xi Jinping’s long-term commitment to decarbonize the world’s future largest economy do so at our peril and also forget a fourth major pledge made by Australia in Paris, namely that developed countries should take the lead.
The biggest tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be.
Australia not only has the potential to be a clean energy superpower and a global climate leader, it has an imperative to do so. As the government has at least now admitted, coal cannot be our second export forever, and we urgently need to find a way to replace it in our trade record.
In Paris, I may not have been part of the Australian delegation, but I was proud to be an Australian advising our regional neighbors of the Marshall Islands, among the most ambitious in the world. It was the Marshall Islands that first inserted into the negotiating text the idea of the IPCC special report on 1.5C which then proved to be essential in demonstrating that it was just as important for the global community as it was for those who are on the front line. It was the Marshall Islands that first came up with the idea of a five-year process to increase ambition, which is why we are focusing on 2030 right now. And it was the Marshall Islands that first proposed the idea of a long-term goal of net zero emissions.
It was also the Marshall Islands that formed the High Ambition Coalition which brought together more than 100 progressive countries of which Australia wanted to be a part. But after three years of a government that repeatedly trashed science, lamented it helped fund the world’s adaptation to climate change, physically brought lumps of coal to parliament, put fossil fuels at the heart of our economic recovery from the pandemic and has been absent at the wheel when the catastrophic climate events we all try to avoid come home, it’s hard to argue that the EU and others were not rightly skeptical of Australia’s good faith at the time. Just as they will do now as the Prime Minister arrives in Glasgow and they build a new carbon pricing regime designed to punish precisely those who broke the promises they made in Paris.