Ahead of the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Australia faces mounting pressure from the international community to increase its efforts to reduce emissions and move away from its reliance on the coal industry. This summit will run from 31 October to 12 November 2021. It is considered an essential part of forming a robust, global response to climate change, especially in light of the recent IPCC report, which declared that climate change is now widespread, rapid, and intensifying.
Growing public consensus and concern has made emission reductions a state priority in many countries around the world. Reinforcing this position, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that “the extreme weather events that we have seen in every part of the world — and you all know it and feel it — represent what the secretary-general has rightly called ‘code red for humanity’… To keep within our reach the vital goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, every nation needs to bring their highest-possible ambitions to the table when we meet in Glasgow for COP26 and then to have to keep raising our collective ambition over time.”
Although Australia is one of the worst offenders worldwide in terms of its emissions production per capita and its position as a major supplier of fossil fuels, it has resisted making significant climate change commitments. Indeed, even its attendance and the COP26 summit were in question earlier this year as Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated that he might not attend the conference. However, in response to widespread criticism, he has changed his position.
International pressure is indispensable in pushing Australia towards a greener and more sustainable future. This pressure is vital given that Australia’s resistance to change is already evident in its emissions targets. For 2030, it has committed to a 26% reduction of its 2005 emission levels. Unlike two-thirds of the states worldwide, it has also refused to set a zero-carbon emissions target for 2050.
This resistance can be traced to long-term special economic interests stemming from the coal mining industry. The Australian government often exaggerates the importance of this industry. In 2020, less than 10 percent of the industry’s AU$55 billion was injected directly into the Australian economy, accounting for roughly 1 percent of national revenue. Although coal remains the country’s second-largest export, the industry employs only 40,000 people. However, it employs some rural constituencies that are key to winning elections — a factor that strongly distorts national policy.
Australia is currently facing the effects of climate change firsthand — it is experiencing higher average temperatures and more extreme droughts, fires, floods, and weather events. However, it continues to justify its lack of action in terms of economic gains. Australian voters, NGOs, and the international community must reframe sustainability as an economic gain to shift Australian government attitudes. Despite Australia’s protestations, coal mining faces a diminishing market.
In North America and the EU, coal use has dramatically dropped, and the EU has made emission reductions a condition for future trade. China is looking to diversify its coal imports, and Australia’s biggest coal buyers – Japan, South Korea, and China – have pledged net-zero targets by 2050. More importantly, it has an abundance of sun and wind, which places it in a unique position for investment and research into renewable energy. This position gives it the potential to become a key player in the rapidly emerging renewables market. Inertia is preventing Australia from leading innovation and capitalising on market opportunities with very high potential returns. As such, Australia must invest in renewables to remain a relevant energy provider.