As the proverb goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. This couldn’t be truer of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s performance at this year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, where he went (kicking and screaming) to join other world leaders in a last drastic effort to curb climate change and save the planet.
Australia’s action on climate change has been embarrassing, with the Labor and Liberal governments toing and froing on the issue for the better part of fifty years without making much progress.
We’ve watched the carbon tax come and go. We’ve seen leaders make pie-in-the-sky climate policy promises to get elected, particularly Liberal politician Malcolm Turnbull, with no follow through. We’ve waded through the endless spin and meaningless rhetoric spouted by our current Prime Minister applauding the ‘Australian way’ of combating climate change, all the while being the handbrake on any meaningful climate action.
So, with the announcement of this year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, some wide-eyed Australians grew hopeful at the thought that our heel-dragging government may finally come to the table on climate change. For others, we knew exactly what was to follow.
In the lead up to the event, many were keen to see whether the considerable pressure at home and from the international community would prompt the PM to offer some more substantial commitments to climate action than we had seen in the past. While he certainly wasn’t going to propose some radical policy denouncing coal and promising billion-dollar investments in renewable energy, we were expecting at least something.
Sure enough, Scotty from Marketing did not disappoint, maintaining his reputation as a constant disappointment by announcing a wishy-(green)-washy plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. A goal that was set at the 2015 Paris Agreement six years ago.
When Prime Minister Morrison took to the lectern to address world leaders at the summit, he took off on a positive note, reminding the audience how successful the Covid vaccine has been globally. One questions whether it was the smartest move for the PM to divert attention away from his government’s mediocre climate policy by directing it towards his government’s equally-mediocre vaccine rollout . . .
Morrison went on to conveniently glaze over Australia’s decision to keep coal mines open until at least 2048, instead emphasising the importance of a ‘technology-driven’ solution to the climate crisis. ScoMo really nailed what the vast majority of his country was thinking when he said that the “challenge of combating climate change” will be met by “those largely not in this room.”
If Morrison’s underwhelming net zero commitment wasn’t enough of a kick in the guts, his refusal to commit to cutting methane emissions by 2030 surely did the trick.
Spearheaded by US President Joe Biden and joined by more than 100 countries, the Global Methane Pledge sought to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent, which scientists say could reduce warming by 0.4C by the year 2040. Sadly, Australia didn’t see value in committing to sector-specific targets, with Energy Minister Angus Taylor telling attendees at the summit that Australia prefers to focus on the “overall outcome.”
After just three days at the fortnight-long conference, Mr Morrison had hit the road, leaving behind nothing but a plume of burnt coal. The PM’s hasty departure reinforced what climate leaders around the world suspected – Australia’s presence at COP26 was merely performative, with our leader and policies all bark and no bite.
Feelings of disillusionment, anger, and confusion are widespread, but there is hope yet. Thanks to a number of dedicated organisations and activists, Australia’s climate action may merit a significant amount of praise.
The School Strike 4 Climate movement is a prime example of young Australians leading the charge on climate action, with the 2019 protests attracting an estimated 300,000 people across the country. On a larger scale, the Australia Pacific arm of global campaigning network Greenpeace has catalysed major shifts amongst the country’s biggest retailers and corporations, with Australia’s four largest retailers, Coles, Woolworths, ALDI, and Bunnings, all committing to reaching 100% renewable energy by 2025, a target already achieved by supermarket giant ALDI.
Speaking to the University of Sydney’s Media and Communications student body, Greenpeace CEO David Ritter described the effect climate action from major brands can have, saying, “if you’ve got major brands committing to clean energy then those major brands, because of their influence on how people think, are changing public perceptions and public opinion.”
Ritter went on to say that whilst the federal government lags embarrassingly behind the zeitgeist on climate policy, there are governments “of all stripes in Australia at state and territory levels that have managed serious commitments … significantly better than the federal targets.”
While COP26 exposed the Australian government on an international scale for lacking any semblance of climate ambition and failing to take seriously the crisis facing the planet, Australia’s private sector, grass-roots organisations, and activist groups are taking matters into their own hands. With major corporations turning entirely to renewables and abandoning coal-powered energy, it signals to the government that Australians demand climate action and will pursue it, whether the state gets on board or not.