SYDNEY — Americans have the second amendment. Australians have the right to bear coal.
A monster fire that’s destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore is burning on Sydney’s doorstep; nine people including two volunteer firefighters have died in blazes around the country since November and more than 800 homes have been lost. As firefighters continue to battle hundreds of blazes, their work is made harder by a crippling drought, record-low rainfall and rolling heatwaves.
Fourteen out of the 15 hottest places on earth on December 18 were in Australia. Last Tuesday, the country set a new record of 40.9C for its national average maximum daytime temperature — then broke it the very next day by a full degree. Anti-pollution face masks are selling out across Sydney and beyond, as residents choke on a smoke haze. Around the country, it’s raining ash.
This pic from Eden Hills Country Fire Service is everything. A koala and firefighter watch on as fire rages ahead pic.twitter.com/N3Q8uPxsj7
— Rashida Yosufzai (@Rashidajourno) December 23, 2019
Not even catastrophes like these seem to bring any political action. How is this possible?
Because we still fail to make the connection between the climate crisis and increased extreme weather events and nature disasters like the #AustraliaFires
That’s what has to change.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) December 22, 2019
The point was underscored by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted on Sunday: “Not even catastrophes like these seem to bring any political action. How is this possible? Because we still fail to make the connection between the climate crisis and increased extreme weather events and nature disasters like the #AustraliaFires That’s what has to change. Now.”
Asked whether Australia would now do more to tackle climate change during a press conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the conservative Liberal Party shot back: “I know there are some who tried to make political points and score points over these issues in the midst of these disasters, and that is disappointing … What we will not do is act in a knee-jerk or crisis or panicked mode.”
The New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian, from the same party, made similar comments when asked in November whether Australia ought to be having a discussion about climate change. “Not today,” she said. “Not tomorrow. Not for the next few weeks.”
That will sound familiar to anybody who has watched the U.S. debate gun control.
Australia — a country that implemented wildly successful strict gun laws in response to a 1996 shooting massacre and has been held up as the poster-child for gun reform since — is as stuck on climate action as the U.S. is on gun laws. In America, not even the deaths of 20 elementary school children in the Sandy Hook shooting massacre could shift the debate. In Australia, the mounting fire death toll couldn’t even get the prime minister to cancel his Hawaiian holiday, let alone increase climate change efforts.
But maybe French President Emmanuel Macron — and the new, greener European Commission — can.
Earlier this year, the European Commission indicated it plans to use trade deals to enforce tougher environmental standards around the world; in 2018, Macron pledged not to “sign commercial agreements” with countries that “do not respect the Paris accord.”
Macron has threatened to kill the EU’s landmark trade deal with the South American Mercosur bloc over Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s inaction over this year’s Amazon forest fires, accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he promised to respect the Paris Agreement and protect the rainforest.
Canberra is in the midst of negotiating its own much-longed-for trade deal with the EU, which in 2018 was Australia’s second-largest trading partner, its third-largest export destination, its second-largest services export market and its largest source of foreign investment. And while the 2019 Amazon fires burned an estimated 900,000 hectares of rainforest, since the start of Australia’s fire season, at least 3.6 million hectares have gone up in smoke in the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland alone.
— Nick Evershed (@NickEvershed) December 16, 2019
When Australia signed up to the Paris Climate Agreement, the country promised to cut its greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 percent on 2005 levels by 2030. Instead, Australia’s emissions have continued to rise, after the ruling conservative government repealed the country’s carbon price in 2014.
Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund warned Canberra it would fail to meet its Paris commitment even if it were to set a carbon price of $75 U.S. a ton — the introduction of which would require Australians to stomach a 75 percent rise in retail energy costs. The OECD, meanwhile, critiqued the country’s “piecemeal approach to emission reduction.” Australia has languished at the bottom of this year’s Climate Change Performance Index, published by Germanwatch, the NewClimate Institute and the Climate Action Network.
As Australia’s countryside and houses burn, its rivers, lakes and dams dry out, its people die, its corals get bleached and its emblematic wildlife teeters on the brink of extinction, Australia’s government is engaging in creative climate accounting.
The EU was so concerned, it probed Australia regarding its Paris Agreement progress in the lead-up to the June 2019 Bonn Climate Change Conference, telling Canberra: “On the basis of reported projections with existing policies and measures, [Australia] is not on track to meet this commitment.” It added: “According to the inventory and projections, net emissions of Australia will grow during the period 2013-2020. Australia is also increasing coal mining, in particular for export.”
So will Macron — and the EU — use their trade deal to force Australia’s hand on climate? The answer could well be oui.
France has been pushing for Australia to accept climate targets in the new trade deal — much to Canberra’s displeasure. In November, Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age: “I think it would be unprecedented to see those type of provisions proposed in an agreement.”
Cooking the books
The Morrison government has repeatedly insisted Australia will reach its Paris commitment to cut 695 megatons of emissions over the next decade. But more than half of its cuts will come from carryover credits from meeting its Kyoto protocol targets, and not from actual reductions. The rest will supposedly result from a government fund established to pay polluters to cut their emissions.
Translation: As Australia’s countryside and houses burn, its rivers, lakes and dams dry out, its people die, its corals get bleached and its emblematic wildlife teeters on the brink of extinction, Australia’s government is engaging in creative climate accounting.
So concerned were the countries opposed to Australia’s use of carryover credits, they attempted (but failed) to insert a ban on the practice into the Madrid climate conference’s final statement earlier this month. For Canberra’s efforts, the Climate Action Network awarded Australia a “Fossil of the Day” prize, which recognizes “countries judged to have done their ‘best’ to block progress in the negotiations or in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”
The government’s stance is not unexpected. Morrison’s last claim to fame prior to becoming prime minister was, back when he was the country’s treasurer in 2017, brandishing a lump of black coal (supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia) in parliament and telling his fellow MPs: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.”
Australia is one of the world’s top coal producers and exporters, and coal accounts for around one-quarter of its resource exports by value over the past decade.
So it’s no surprise that attempts to curb the country’s coal addiction in the past have led to massive election scare campaigns (a single cow or lamb could cost as much as a house! “You never increase jobs by increasing taxes!”), political point-scoring and, ultimately, the deposing of a string of prime ministers. So even as opinion polls consistently show the Australian public wants its government to do more on climate change, politicians are paralyzed with inaction.
Getting Australia out of its smoke haze and on board with climate action would be a huge coup. While the country itself accounts for around 1.3 percent of the world’s emissions, according to The Australia Institute think tank, it’s the globe’s third-largest exporter of CO2 in fossil fuels. If that changes, in the future, maybe the koalas — and the firefighters — will stand more of a chance.
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