Australia’s ambition on climate change is held back by a toxic mix of rightwing politics, media and vested interests | Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull

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It was always expected that Joe Biden’s election would be a massive shot in the arm for international climate action, but the scale of that boost has been genuinely surprising.

The new president has now invited 40 world leaders to a virtual climate change summit coinciding with Earth Day this Thursday. China’s Xi Jinping will be there, following productive face-to-face talks last week between Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, in Shanghai. Even Vladimir Putin is attending, despite divisions between Washington and the Russian leader over new sanctions.

Japan, South Korea and Canada are all expected to announce new medium-term 2030 emissions reduction plans this week, after earlier refusing to do so. Even China – the world’s largest emitter – last week signalled they may also be prepared to do more this decade above and beyond commitments they made at the end of last year.

Our country, however, continues to bury its head in the sand, despite the fact that Australia remains dangerously at risk of the economic and environmental consequences that will come from the climate crisis barrelling towards us.

Prime minister Scott Morrison’s refusal to adopt both a firm timeline to reach net zero emissions and to increase its own interim 2030 target leaves us effectively isolated in the western world. It also goes against what we signed up to through the Paris agreement – which both our governments worked so hard to secure.

According to our independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) and the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo), not only should Australia be doing much more as “our fair share” towards global efforts to reduce emissions, but importantly we also now have the capacity to do more.

The reality is Australia’s current target, set in 2015, to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030 is now woefully inadequate – and was always intended to be updated this year. The Obama administration had exactly the same target as Australia, but aimed to achieve it five years earlier than us, which in reality made it much more ambitious than ours. And this week, the Biden administration is expected to announce a new 2030 pledge twice as deep as Australia’s current effort. This will set a new global litmus test for Australia’s own ambition, which as the CCA has said should be at least a 45% cut by 2030.

But, as two former prime ministers representing our nation’s centre-left and centre-right parties, the world shouldn’t give up hope on our country just yet. Thankfully, there is some cause for optimism. Our sun-drenched country has the highest per capita penetration of rooftop solar in the world. And with the right approach, Aemo has said that renewables could go from providing a quarter of electricity market demand on our populous eastern seaboard today to 75% in less than five years. The fact we are in a position to even be able to seize this technological opportunity is in large part due to the introduction in 2009 of a 20% clean renewable energy target for 2020 and the launching of the largest renewable clean energy project in our nation’s history (Snowy Hydro 2.0) by our respective governments.

The national consensus for climate action in Australia has also shifted markedly in recent years. Every state and territory government is now committed to net zero emissions, so too are our peak industry, business and agriculture groups, as well as our national airline, and even our largest mining company.

The main thing holding back Australia’s climate ambition is politics: a toxic coalition of the Murdoch press, the right wing of the Liberal and National parties, and vested interests in the fossil fuel sector.

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Australia's climate wars: a decade of dithering - video

Sadly, instead of seizing this technological opportunity and embracing this newfound national consensus, the government remains hell-bent on a “gas-fired recovery” from Covid-19. Old coal plants still generate around 75% of Australia’s electricity. But these are being replaced by renewables plus storage because they are a cheaper form of generation than the alternatives on offer.

Gas has a role to play in the transition, but that role is to steadily diminish as renewables continue to grow. To bet big on the future role of gas is to bet against the best engineering and economic advice coming out of Aemo, and to ignore the scientific advice that more gas in the grid will simply lead to more emissions. The only long-term gas-fired future we should be planning is green hydrogen made by electrolysing water with renewable energy.

Australia may be able to get away with showing up empty-handed to this week’s summit, but will find it even more difficult to do as a special guest of the British at the G7 leaders’ summit in June. We would be the only developed country in the room that is not committed to net zero by 2050. And we will find it even harder again to show up empty-handed at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow at the end of the year, given more than 100 countries in the world have pledged to increase their ambition.

There are also consequences for this inaction.

As the rolling apocalypse of fires and floods in our country demonstrates, Australia is on the global frontline of this climate crisis. Last year’s wildfires claimed dozens of lives, destroyed thousands of homes, wiped out billions of animals, and cost billions of dollars.

With more than 70% of Australia’s trade now with countries committed to net zero, the prospect of carbon border taxes being introduced – beginning with the European Union – also leaves us economically exposed. So too does our continued faith in coal as a leading export commodity, especially with many of the 50 proposed new coalmines in Australia already struggling to attract finance. Instead of expanding coal, we should be increasing our support for ground-breaking projects such as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara region which could allow us to become a green hydrogen supplier for Asia’s clean energy transition. There are also promising new hydrogen projects planned for Queensland centred on Gladstone, a traditional coal port. Building dozens of new coalmines won’t set Australia up for the future; it will lock us into the past.

Australians like to think we “punch above our weight” on the global stage. We certainly do when we come to climate change: we emit more than 40 other countries with larger populations, and our per capita emissions are the highest of any advanced economy. This is not a record we should be proud of at all.

It’s often fatuously claimed that what countries like Australia do make no difference to the global climate because we account for only about 1.2% of emissions. The reality is that Australia is the third-largest fossil fuel exporter in the world. Our own environment is especially vulnerable to global warming as the recent massive bushfires demonstrated. Our economy is also vulnerable to the transition away from fossil fuels. Denial of the reality of global warming and the need to transition to a prosperous clean energy economy is abandoning our responsibilities as much to Australian workers as it is to the world.

Hopefully, at this week’s summit the prime minister will receive the wake-up call the government needs. In the meantime, the rest of the world should not give up on us yet. If our country’s last decade has demonstrated anything – with five prime ministers in just eight years – it’s that political winds can change very quickly.

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