Australia is a bludger on carbon emissions, not an overachiever

The Prime Minister has been fond of telling people not to panic lately. Don’t panic about the economy being as stagnant as the water in the Darling River (where NSW is preparing for “fish Armageddon”). Don’t panic that most of the east coast of Australia is either engulfed in bushfires or choking on smoke.

According to the Prime Minister, there’s no need to be anxious about the bushfires. “These highly trained officers run towards dangerous incidents, not away from them,” he said. “It is vital they have every resource necessary to help them do their job and protect the community.” Unfortunately, his comments weren’t about firefighters, but part of a $107 million security boost for Australia’s airports, which will see police visibly wielding assault rifles at capital city airports across the country. Of course, there’s nothing more reassuring than the sight of assault rifles in the airport. “That’s the last time I run for the gate,” commented a colleague.

But it isn’t terrorism on people’s minds when they arrive at Sydney airport these days.

“At 39,000 ft, we could smell Australia long before we saw it. Perhaps 300 miles out. And it smelt of bushfires. Then as we came in to land, it looked more like the End of Days,” tweeted actor Sam Neill as he arrived in Sydney.

When it comes to threats to our security from terrorism, no expense is spared, and the Morrison government will “take no chances” when it comes to “keeping the community safe”.

But when it comes to security threats from climate change – like the health hazards from bushfire smoke or ash in the water supply – Morrison has decided to act like there is nothing unprecedented about this year’s bushfires, instead telling Australians it is important to “have a sense of calm”. To acknowledge that this bushfire season is unprecedented might imply the need for a “take-no-chances” approach to reducing Australia’s emissions, something the Coalition government has proved itself incapable of even talking about, let alone doing.

People are anxious and angry because the government has seemed more concerned with religious freedom and airport security than the bushfires, which represent a far more immediate and highly visible threat to not only Australia’s largest city, but dozens of regional towns.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister announced an additional $11 million for aerial firefighting resources – I guess his initial response that volunteer firefighters “wanted to be there” did not test well in focus groups.

Yet the speed and scale of the Morrison government’s response to the bushfires does not seem to match the scale of the problem or reflect the intensity of the community’s concerns. There are reports of rural fire service brigades crowdfunding for face masks and other supplies. Even more disturbing is the report in The Guardian that NSW RFS brigades have been warned about crowdfunding for protective masks “without the appropriate authority”.

Many Australians are willing to donate face masks for firefighters, but that goodwill obscures a perverse reality; you can be sure Australians will never be asked to donate so that police can afford bullets for their assault rifles.

Speaking of perverse, the major concession Australia is trying to secure at the climate talks in Madrid is the use of so-called “carryover” Kyoto credits, to count towards meeting Australia’s Paris target in 2030. Back in Kyoto in 1997 Australia demanded what became known as “the Australia clause”, which redefined baseline emissions to include land clearing (rampant in Queensland and NSW at the time). This made Australia’s emissions targets very easy to meet. Not content with that, the Howard government negotiated a Kyoto target that was an increase in emissions of 8 per cent. Australia boasting that we met our 8 per cent emissions increase target reminds me of clicking on those “How this single woman bought a million-dollar flat in Sydney and you can too” articles and opening it to find she bought it with a substantial inheritance from her Nan, while still living with her parents. It’s unearned.

There is currently no legal basis for the carryover of pre-2021 units from the Kyoto Protocol for use under the Paris Agreement, according to new research by Climate Analytics commissioned by the Australia Institute. The Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement are separate treaties.

The PM tried to dismiss these legal concerns – “it’s like saying that if you get ahead of your mortgage, it doesn’t count,” he said.

But Australia’s Kyoto credits are less like mortgage repayments and more like that inheritance-bought house. The credits Australia claims as “over-achievement” were gifted to developed countries, rather than earned for reducing emissions.

And just like we did in Kyoto, Australia is trying to use our unearned “carryover” credits, so we don’t have to reduce our emissions as much. It’s completely contrary to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Worse still, if Australia is successful at exploiting this loophole, it could risk undermining the whole agreement by encouraging other countries to follow suit.

Australia is not on track to meet its 2030 target to reduce emissions by 26 per cent. But if it’s successful in securing this loophole, it would reduce Australia’s effective target to only a 13.3 per cent reduction below 2005 emissions levels.

The rest of the world is sick of hearing Australia’s excuses, particularly when Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions in the world and is the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“The truth is, in a family of nearly 200 nations, collective efforts are key. We all must take responsibility for ourselves, and we all must play our part to achieve net zero,” Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said.

“As I like to say, we’re all in the same canoe. But currently, that canoe is taking on water with nearly 200 holes – and there are too few of us trying to patch them.”

The fact is, Australia is a bludger when it comes to reducing emissions, not an overachiever. And the unprecedented bushfires are a stark, daily reminder of the very real consequences if Australia keeps opening new coal mines and coal-fired power stations and choking investment in renewables. Unprecedented could become Australia’s new normal. Summers could become something to fear, rather than enjoy.

There are signs that some Liberals can read the tea leaves. Liberal MP Tim Wilson has been busy endorsing the 50 per cent renewable energy target that just a few months ago he said would ruin the economy. And NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean not only said that the bushfires were linked to climate change, but that “responsible and decisive action on climate change” is required. He is reportedly preparing a target to reduce emissions in NSW by 35 per cent by 2030. The Murdoch papers have pilloried Mr Kean with the kind of vitriol they usually reserve for Muslims, ABC staff and the unemployed.

If these unprecedented bushfires have not been enough to shift the Morrison government on climate, it is hard to imagine what it would take. Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of the Prime Minister’s book and pray for a Christmas miracle.

    Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett.

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