By Damien Cave
© The New York Times Co.
SYDNEY » At a time when climate change and those who fight it demand that coal be treated like tobacco, as a danger everywhere it is burned, Australia increasingly is becoming known for refusing to clean up its act.
With just days to go before a major U.N. climate conference in Scotland, Australia is one of the last holdouts among developed nations in committing to net zero emissions by 2050, and it has refused to strengthen its 2030 target or make plans for transitioning away from its deep investment in fossil fuel production.
The country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, only recently agreed to attend the climate summit after criticism from Queen Elizabeth II and a crowdfunded billboard in Times Square that mocked his reluctance to address climate change, calling him “Coal-o-phile Dundee.”
“The government and the opposition are captured by the coal and gas industries,” said Adam Bandt, the leader of the Australian Greens and a member of Parliament from Melbourne. “It’s a version of a petro-state.”
Australia’s inertia points to a pressing challenge for the world: how to get places that profit from a dangerous product to transition before it becomes too late. With the threat of even more damaging storms and fires looming if temperatures keep rising, environmentalists say, a combineand- conquer approach is required — fossil fuel users and producers need to kick the habit.
The kings of carbon are not in a rush. A U.N. report released Wednesday found that coal, oil and gas production will keep growing at least until 2040, reaching levels more than double what is needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.
In May, the International Energy Agency released a detailed overview of what it would take to cut carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and keep the average global temperature from increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — the threshold beyond which the Earth faces irreversible damage.
Near the top of the list: end investment in new sources of fossil fuels.
Australia’s federal government still revels in Australia’s role as the world’s largest coal exporter. A report from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources last month used a medal icon in denoting the country’s status as the world’s coal leader, expected to ship out 439 million tons this year.
In the past month, three new coal mining projects have been approved. In New South Wales, a production hub for the thermal coal burned in power plants — some of the biggest contributors to global emissions — proposals for 20 new coal mines are under review. And that does not include a giant project in the state of Queensland, where the Indian industrial giant Adani is trying to build the largest coal mine in the world.
Nor does it include Australia’s expansion of natural gas. The government plans to open at least five new gas fields The tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry last year were worth more than what Australia spends on its army — and the federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, said this month that the government should spend even more to protect coal and gas.
Critics argue that it is all the product of a warped political and media culture that has spent decades doing the industry’s bidding while deceiving the public, exaggerating coal employment and understating the need to reverse course. Federal elections are often won or lost in the coal areas of Queensland, and with another contest due next year, the coalition government’s junior partner, the National Party, which represents regional areas, is playing a familiar hand.
“For at least 10 years, they’ve been telling people that climate change is rubbish, that it doesn’t exist, that we can continue digging up and burning coal forever and a day,” said Zali Steggall, an independent member of Parliament who unseated a former prime minister, Tony Abbott, in 2019 with a campaign focused on climate. “They have a difficult job now in turning around to those communities and saying we were wrong or misleading you and we need to do this.”
Until the devastating bush fires of two years ago, Australians might not have blinked at their government’s continued support for fossil fuels. The country is responsible for less than 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. But the Australian public has become increasingly concerned. Polls show that a strong majority of Australians want climate action even if the costs are significant, and they want the government to stop approving new coal mines.
“It’s just so frustrating,” said Dan Illic, a comedian and podcast host who raised more than $100,000 for the Times Square billboard. “It’s like all of Australia can see what needs to happen except the people who are getting fossil fuel donations.”