Australia's bid to co-host COP31 climate conference faces obstacles

Flare (Oceania) John Gerrard

Flare (Oceania) John Gerrard — A continuous burning gas flare set against the backdrop of the Tongan coast. Author’s photo of video installation at National Gallery of Victoria 5 Dec 2023

Australia’s hopes of co-hosting the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) COP31 (Conference of the Parties) summit in 2026 with Pacific nations may well depend on how the rest of the world sees its progress towards eliminating carbon emissions. Since the election of the new Labor government in 2022, Australia’s international reputation regarding climate action has risen considerably as a result of stronger emissions targets and its enhanced Safeguard Mechanism.

However, the controversy surrounding the hosting of COP28 by the United Arab Emirates, a major oil exporter, may ring some alarm bells. Australia is also a major fossil fuel exporter, namely coal and gas.

There are a number of contentious aspects to the government’s climate policy.

Meeting emissions targets

The Federal Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen was upbeat in his climate statement to parliament before leaving to represent Australia at COP28. He acknowledged the challenges in meeting the goal of a 43 percent reduction by 2030 but argued that:

With policies we have announced and are in the process of implementing, Australia’s emissions are projected to be 42 per cent below 2005 levels in 2030 — compared to 40 per cent in last year’s projections.

However, the government-funded, independent statutory body, the Climate Change Authority, warned in its 2023 Annual Progress Report:

Meeting or surpassing Australia’s 2030 target is crucial – otherwise achieving the more ambitious but essential targets needed down the track will be that much harder. The authority’s assessment is there are real risks of falling short, but working together we can succeed. The challenge is: ‘are we willing to do what it takes?’

There are many people who are sceptical about the minister's claims. Economist John Quiggin looked at some of the data and concluded:

Unfortunately, a closer look at the statement suggests Australia is unlikely to achieve net zero by 2050 in the absence of radical policy changes.

New coal and gas projects

Greenpeace Australia has an online petition against any new coal or gas projects, with particular focus on the concerns of its near neighbours in the Pacific. With 30 new coal and gas projects seeking approval in Australia, with a potential 20+ billion tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere, the petition claims:

As Australia is the third biggest fossil fuel exporter in the world, the Australian Government must listen to Pacific communities and stop new coal, oil and gas projects now.

Approving new fossil fuel projects will endanger countless lives and recklessly lock Australia into more fossil fuels as the rest of the world shifts to cleaner, cheaper renewable energy.

Australia’s Climate Council, an independent non-government organisation, is very clear about the challenge:

For Australia, COP28 comes as our nation continues to work to rebuild its international reputation on climate, after a decade as one of the world’s most notorious climate pariahs.

…If Australia is to be a successful host of COP31 in 2026 … Australia will need to stop adding fuel to the fire and plan for a managed phase-out of fossil fuels.

Pacific Island countries have been pushing for drastic action on fossil fuels, as spelled out in the Port Vila call for a just transition to a fossil-free Pacific in March 2023. The language was watered down in the Pacific Island forum communique in November, following pressure from Australia and New Zealand. A historic climate change agreement was also signed between Australia and Tuvalu, one of the countries threatened by rising sea levels.

The progressive Australia Institute put the case against fossil fuels in this video:

The Institute’s Poly Hemming contends that:

Any policy that does not address the primary cause of the climate crisis, fossil fuels, is not informed by science. Any policy that facilitates new fossil fuels is not a climate policy, it's greenwash. If a government anywhere tells you we need more gas and coal to meet our climate targets they have no climate integrity.

In a June 2023 report, the Australia Institute asserted:

To host a COP in Australia in good faith, it would be fitting for the federal government to demonstrate how it is fulfilling the requests of the Pacific as well as demonstrating to the international community how its climate target and fossil fuel expansion plans are consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The ACF (Australian Conservation Foundation) is also concerned about the challenge of coal and gas:

Frustratingly, the Albanese government is taking genuine steps to cut climate emissions at home while enabling the increased and ongoing export of coal and gas to other countries.

The ACF also argues that:

The government says it’s not responsible for the emissions when Australian coal and gas is burnt overseas, but the fact remains that Albanese government decisions are fuelling global warming. It’s the difference between climate accounting and climate accountability.

In developing COP28 news, the ACF has congratulated the Australian government on “its commitment to stopping billions of dollars in foreign aid and loans being spent on fossil fuel expansion”, but wants a similar promise down under.

Carbon capture and storage

Australia is putting some hope and resources into the controversial CCS (Carbon capture and storage). This is the process of storing carbon dioxide produced by such areas as mining, power generation and industry in long-term isolation from the atmosphere.

It has many critics, such as Keivn Morrison, Energy Finance Analyst, Australian Gas for The Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). He maintains that CCS will have minimal impact and argues that:

CCS only perpetuates oil and gas production, which are major contributors to global GHG emissions each year. Global energy-related CO2 emissions totalled 36.8 gigatonnes in 2022, whereas CCS sequestered a little more than 40 million tonnes of CO2 in the same period. This equates to a rounding error in the total emissions pumped into the atmosphere each year.

Carbon Offsets

The safeguard mechanism relies heavily on carbon offsets and transferable credits for these. A carbon offset is defined as:

A carbon offset broadly refers to a reduction in GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions — or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or the planting of trees) — that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.

The Australian government’s scheme, called Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), supports projects that sequester (isolate) carbon from the atmosphere. Minister Bowen emphasised its importance in September 2023:

Let me be clear, integrity in crediting real carbon abatement is essential.

The ACCU scheme must deliver real and additional abatement that contributes to our legislated emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

However, not everyone is convinced. At the Conversation, Professors Andrew Macintosh and Don Butler have challenged the effectiveness of many of the offset projects:

Our research shows that most of these projects have low integrity. People are getting carbon credits for not clearing forests that were never going to be cleared anyway, for growing trees that already exist, for growing forests in places that will never sustain them, and for operating electricity generators at landfills that would have operated anyway.

The bid

In a June 2023 report, the Australia Institute maintained:

The current Labor Government’s stated climate ambition may be an improvement over that of the previous government, but its legislated climate target of a 43 per centreduction in emissions by 2030 is not consistent with 1.5°C or 2°C of global warming, and its support for fossil fuel expansion is just as enthusiastic as its predecessor.

Australian governments collectively provide $11 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies making the $700 million Australia has committed to climate finance in the Pacific over four years look particularly meagre.

As this report also pointed out, there is a domestic democratic hurdle facing the current government as well:

The proposition to host a COP will need bipartisan support, because the four years until COP31 will see a federal election take place, bringing with it the possibility of a change in government.

The host of COP31 will be decided before the COP30 meeting in 2025.

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