In light of Australia’s bid to host the 2026 COP, extra pressure will fall on Chris Bowen and his delegation at this year’s conference to prove the nation’s commitment to mitigating climate change. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Inside the COP28 talks

A‘COP28 UAE’ sign.
The COP28 conference is being held in the United Arab Emirates.
Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP

The growing awareness that two-thirds of all fossil fuels must stay in the ground to keep global warming to 2 degrees – now acknowledged in an internal briefing for the Australian delegate to COP28 – will add pressure on the government to step up to its commitments.

Representatives from world governments gathered in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday for the opening day of this round of the UN Climate Change Conference, which is expected to determine whether the global targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 will hold.

Under that pact, governments around the world agreed to a range of measures that would keep global average temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees. Multiple reports from the United Nations and independent bodies released in recent weeks have found the actions taken so far are not nearly enough.

Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen will lead the Australian delegation at the conference, where the contingent is likely to face growing pressure to raise the country’s ambitions, particularly in light of Australia’s bid to host the event in 2026.

Bowen released the Australian government’s annual climate statement on Thursday, which he said confirmed Australia will cut CO2 emissions to 42 per cent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, just shy of the government’s stated target.

However, this projection relies on anticipated reductions in emissions brought by changes to the safeguard mechanism, the government’s investment scheme for renewable generation and a yet-to-be-released electric vehicle strategy.

The updated figures were accompanied by independent advice by the Climate Change Authority that found the government had an ambitious policy agenda but this had “yet to translate into the emissions reduction needed”.

Of the 42 recommendations made by the authority, the government agreed, agreed-in-principle or noted 39 recommendations but rejected another three. These included calls for a nationally consistent plan to phase out new gas connections in Australian homes, the swift introduction of fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles and similar standards for heavy vehicles.

In his November 26 appearance on the ABC’s Insiders, Bowen defended Labor’s 43 per cent emissions reduction target as “ambitious and achievable” and rejected criticism from the Australian Conservation Foundation that the 16 new fossil fuel projects the government has either already approved, or continues to support, will wipe out any gains made.

The ACF’s latest research estimates these projects could produce more than seven tonnes of carbon pollution for every tonne reduced by the government’s policies.

Bowen said the report mischaracterised projects that had been approved, noting it included mines that provided coal for use in steelmaking.

“You can enter into a discussion with your international counterparts, as we are doing, which is us saying to them, ‘We will continue to be a reliable energy supplier, but we want to work with you on your decarbonisation because we have advantages that you don’t ... we can provide renewable energy,’ ” Bowen said.

The meeting in Dubai is the first of the five-yearly global stocktakes planned under the Paris Agreement to check how world governments are measuring up on their pledges to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Already the conference has attracted controversy over the appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, head of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, as COP28 president. Jaber received the nomination after an intense lobbying campaign led by figures including former United States presidential candidate John Kerry and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

On November 27, in the lead-up to COP28, documents obtained in a joint investigation by BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting revealed Jaber secretly planned to use the access afforded by his position to negotiate oil deals with foreign governments on behalf of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

The COP presidency is a rotating position where the individuals taking up the role are obligated to be impartial, putting the integrity of the process above the domestic aims of the host.

Climate scientist Bill Hare says the future of the global accord may be at stake in Dubai, as the conclusions it draws will inform countries’ commitments over the critical period to 2035.

“The global stocktake is at the heart of the Paris agreement, and if it fails, the Paris agreement will begin to falter,” says Hare, who chairs Climate Analytics, a global policy institute aimed at helping countries achieve the 1.5-degree target. “This is especially important, because we know that action is way off track, multiple scientific reports are saying this, including the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the UNEP [UN Environment Programme] gap report, the Climate Action Tracker.

“And we know that the next few years provide the last window for a course correction to hold warming to the 1.5-degree limit.”

This year the world sweltered through the hottest September on record and scientists grew alarmed after global average temperatures temporarily spiked at more than 2 degrees above average for the first time on November 17.

This does not mean the world is at a permanent state of warming above 2 degrees, but is a sign of what’s to come as climate change deepens. An analysis by UNEP found the world was on track for average temperatures to rise by as much as 3 degrees this century.

“A continuation of the level of climate change mitigation effort implied by current unconditional NDCs [nationally determined contributions] is estimated to limit warming over the twenty-first century to about 2.6°C (range: 1.9–3.1°C) with a 66 per cent chance, and warming is expected to increase further after 2100 as CO2 emissions are not yet projected to reach net-zero levels,” the agency said.

Alongside the incremental rise in global average temperatures, the resulting change in local conditions is sharp as dependable climatic patterns break down and natural disasters are turbocharged. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly said humanity is building a “hellish” future, but so far world governments have taken only “baby steps” towards addressing the problem.

A separate review published by scientific journal Nature found the cost of delay was rising fast. Had the world acted in 1992, the challenge would have been simpler, but the failure to address climate change at that time now requires a much larger effort – and expense – to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

The Australian government has sought to set the domestic agenda around COP28 with a string of big-ticket announcements.

These include the deal struck with Tuvalu to allow residents of the Pacific Island nation to resettle in Australia over a period of 10 years and a planned overhaul of the way Australia invests in renewable energy.

Under the scheme, the renewable energy target, a program that set up incentives for businesses to invest in new energy generation – with the goal of achieving 82 per cent renewables in the grid by 2030 – would be retired in favour of a plan focused on increased government investment.

The government plans to use public funds to install 32 gigawatts of new electricity – comprising 23 gigawatts of renewable generation, such as wind and solar power, and nine gigawatts of battery storage – into the Australian grid. Fossil fuel producers will not be eligible.

In a speech to the Lowy Institute, Chris Bowen framed this expanded capacity investment scheme as “critical for our domestic energy future” for reasons of “costs, for reliability and for domestic energy security”.

“In 2022, Australia’s coal-power fleet suffered thousands of hours of forced outages, leaving the grid short of forecast coal generation capacity for nearly one quarter of the year,” Bowen said.

“Expert analysis of coal plant performance finds that the units are collectively unavailable for a much longer period (or volume of energy) than was the case several years ago.

“This isn’t a political view, it’s a practical reality and reinforces the urgency of the transition to renewables.”

However, the government has so far largely refused to engage with calls for a planned fossil fuel phase-out.

The International Energy Agency, a conservative international agency originally created to facilitate fossil fuel development, has consistently called for an end to new oil, gas and coal investment since 2021.

Australia’s Pacific neighbours have also been demanding commitments from the government for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a concrete plan for phasing out oil, gas and coal.

Briefing documents obtained under freedom of information from the Department of Climate Change, Energy and Water point to a recognition that Australia will have to tackle the issue. A brief that informed a speech given by the Australian delegate to the closing plenary of the global stocktake’s technical dialogue in Bonn this year noted both the need to avoid extracting additional fossil fuel resources to contain climate change and the risk that existing operations may become stranded assets as a result.

“Projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the lifetime of existing fossil fuel infrastructure (without additional abatement) are consistent with an approximately 2ºC warming pathway,” the brief said.

“To limit warming to 2ºC (>67 per cent) or lower, about 80 per cent of coal, 50 per cent of gas and 30 per cent of oil reserves cannot be burned and emitted – leading to stranded assets.”

This conclusion was based on an analysis of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Keeping climate change to 1.5 degrees will require an even sharper reduction in fossil fuel production – including in Australia.

At least US$1 trillion in fossil fuel infrastructure is at risk of becoming stranded assets as the world moves towards net zero, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change in May last year.

Richie Merzian, international director at the Smart Energy Council, says international pressure is likely to push Australia to step up to its global role, particularly if it wanted to host a future COP. “Australia trying to say it’s doing anything by the book won’t stand if the moral leadership doesn’t match what they’re presenting,” Merzian says.

“I think this will provide Australia and the Australian government with the impetus they need to make the hard decisions they’ve struggled to make to date.”

There are signs of hope. The cost of clean technologies has fallen dramatically to the point where rooftop solar is the cheapest source of power on the planet. Wind and battery storage are competitive with fossil fuel generation, and electric vehicles are rolling towards critical mass.

However, Australia still vies with Qatar for the title of world’s largest gas exporter. And as the government continues to approve new fossil fuel projects, Bill Hare says it’s not clear that the country is ready to accept change.

He says all signs suggest the broader Australian government is stuck in the past.

“The reality is we have to phase out fossil fuels,” he says. “The fossil fuel industry’s capture of both main political parties remains as strong as ever, and in some ways seems to be increasing.

“The longer the world takes to cut our use of fossil fuels, the more misery we consign to populations across the planet as they try to grapple with extreme weather events.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Inside the COP28 talks".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription