Last December, as the world's horrified attention was drawn to the worst bushfires in Australia's known history, the nation was also making news for its efforts to dilute global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during crucial climate negotiations in Madrid.
Breaking with diplomatic norms Costa Rica's environment and energy minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez called out three countries as the chief wreckers: The US, Brazil and Australia.
Delaying tactics? Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor during Question Time.
I am deeply pained by the attitude of the current Australian government: that still after the worst disaster that has ever hit the planet, the bushfires in Australia, that this government is still denying climate change and denying the fact that there is a lot that Australia can and should be doing," one of the United Nation's top climate negotiators, Christiana Figueres, later told the ABC.
In January the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, drafted by a group of think tanks including the NewClimate Institute, the Climate Action Network and Germanwatch, was published.
Of the 61 nations whose climate policy it considered it ranked Australia as having the worst.
One of the authors of that survey was Ursula Hagen of Germanwatch. Having read the government's so-called Technology Road map released this week in draft-form Hagen told the Herald and The Age that she sees no reason why the document would cause Australia's rank to change.
"It lacks any clear targets [for emissions reduction], it has no clear policy of how it might achieve any targets," Hagen says. "It is not a strategy."
The central criticism of the road map is that it is essentially a survey of (mostly) green technologies that the government may support at the advice of an expert panel in order to create an economy that emits less carbon, but which maintains growth and jobs. "We do not need another survey of technologies that might save us in the future," says Associate Professor Malte Meinshausen, the founding director of the University of Melbourne's climate and energy college.
"We already know what the technologies are. We need regulatory reform and a plan to use them." In his experience, says Meinshausen, surveys of emerging technologies have been used to delay real action.
Nor does the road map contain a quantifiable set of objectives. It does not outline how much less carbon the government wants Australia to emit over the coming years, or how it might meet such targets. This is despite the fact that the entire global effort in combating climate change is predicated on setting and meeting targets. Scientists tell us that to stave off the worst impacts of climate change we need to keep global warming under 2 degrees and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. Australia agreed to this at the Paris climate talks in 2015.
According to the UN the world is currently on track for a 3.2C temperature rise. In order to pull back towards 1.5 degrees of warming the world now needs to cut its emissions by 7.6 per cent annually. Each year we delay action, that figure rises.
'We have all the technology already. We don't need to look at things that might save us in 10 or 20 years.' Malte Meinshausen, founding director of the University of Melbourne's climate and energy college.
Due to Australia's reliance on coal it is among the highest per capita carbon emitters on earth, with 0.3 per cent of the world's population we release 1.07 per cent of greenhouse gases.
Nonetheless, and despite drought and bushfires already demonstrating how susceptible Australia is to climate change, our leaders have proved to be among the least ambitious in confronting the crisis. Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said the Paris agreement set a "joint target with other countries around the world to reduce emissions to net-zero in the second half of the century". The federal government has declined to set any earlier commitments.
Australia's global critics view this as not in keeping with the spirit of the Paris agreement.
Article two of the agreement locks signatories into following the "best available science" on emissions reduction and to pursue the "highest level of ambition" to act consistently with global action needed to keep warming in check.
This clause sets a de facto deadline on achieving net-zero emissions, Australian National University Emeritus Professor Will Steffen told the Herald and The Age earlier this year.
"To stay within two degrees we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2040-2045 at the very latest: 2050 is too late, we've already put too much carbon into the atmosphere," Professor Steffen said. The Paris Agreement also includes an interim target. For Australia, that means reducing emissions by at least 26 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels, or a cumulative 695 million tonnes of carbon.
To reach this target Australia is insisting on counting the 365 million tonnes of "carryover credits" it earned by exceeding the target set in a previous international treaty – the Kyoto Protocol. It is this demand that prompted such fury at Australia in Madrid in December, and which is causing such concern around the world as nations prepare for the next round of talks in Glasgow next year.
Which brings us back to the road map announced this week.
Experts were cheered that it made no mention of coal. Some were shocked that it listed gas and carbon capture and storage as technologies that may win support, while others welcomed its recognition of the wide-scale technology reform needed to achieve net-zero emissions.
In a perfect policy world, experts argue, the government would help industry meet the target by investing in incentives for industry. That means offering subsidies to industry to adopt low-emissions technologies. This creates a "push factor" for industry to change. The push factor would be complemented by "pull factors" – namely government-set quotas for products and services produced by the low-emissions industries. For example, concrete produced through renewable power, low emissions heating and lighting in new buildings, electric vehicles in public transport, and so on across the economy. "There is no space any more for any more fossil fuels," says Tim Baxter, a senior researcher with the Climate Council.
At next year's climate talks each nation is expected to present even more ambitious reduction targets, and a plan for meeting them. So far, the road map is the closest thing Australia has to such a plan.
According to Richie Merzian, who in 2013 was a lead negotiator for Australia at climate talks in Warsaw, the document will be viewed as inadequate at best. "No one asked for this. There was no international body that wanted a technology road map, what people want is a target and a strategy," he says.
Merzian – now director of climate and energy policy at The Australia Institute, a progressive think tank – still recalls how isolating it was to represent Australia that year, shortly after Tony Abbott had come to power and denounced the UN climate system as socialism masquerading as environmentalism.
Each day during the bruising talks members of civil society groups would vote on which nation had played the most destructive role and present a representative of that nation with a "fossil of the day award". Australia took it out time and again. "We were seen as a nation that was happy for domestic politics to undermine collective international action," he says.
Asked what a comprehensive plan would look like Meinshausen can rattle off a detailed framework from the top of his head.
It would begin with an optimistic vision of an Australia in 2030 with a bustling outwardly focused economy fuelled by renewable energy and meeting emissions reduction targets. It would chart a course on how to achieve that goal based on four pillars. The first would be regulatory reform centred on some form of carbon price. The second would outline how the government would help to strengthen the grid and buttress it with batteries and technologies such as pumped hydro to store and dispatch power. The third would consider how our land management practices could arrest carbon emissions from forestry loss and boost the amount of carbon we stored in soil via agricultural practices. The fourth would detail how the government would help Australia become a heavy industry powerhouse, supporting green energy intensive manufacturing.
"We have all the technology already. We don't need to look at things that might save us in 10 or 20 years," he says. "We need policy and regulatory reform and implementation now." According to Herve Lemahieu, the director of the Lowy Institute's Asian power and diplomacy program, the cost to Australia of isolation on climate change extends far beyond climate talks.
He says Australia was facing further embarrassment at the Glasgow talks in November, before they were delayed due to COVID-19, and it has won something of a diplomatic reprieve due to its effective handling of the pandemic. He cites the support Australia was given at the World Health Assembly for its calls for an inquiry into the source of the coronavirus. But he says soon climate change will again be the focus of the world, and Australia will again be isolated for its recalcitrant response.
"It is going to be harder for Australia to deepen its relationships with like-minded middle powers, which Australia needs to do in the absence of US global leadership."