News

Just like its pavilion at the Glasgow climate summit, Australia is awkwardly wedged between the two realities emerging at COP26. By Karen Middleton.

The two stories of the Glasgow climate summit

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at COP26 in Glasgow this week.
Credit: Phil Noble / Getty Images

Australia’s pavilion at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow is in a slightly awkward spot. Showcasing Australian environmental technologies and providing a meeting space for delegates, it’s back-to-back with another titled “The Methane Moment”. That pavilion is spruiking the world’s American-led pledge to cut methane emissions by 2030 – a pledge Australia has refused to sign.

Together but apart, the pair of pavilions reflect the two stories emerging from this Conference of the Parties to the UN climate agreement, known as COP26.

One is a tale of recalcitrant governments still resisting what many others have finally faced – the need to not just reduce net emissions but to start directly phasing out fossil fuels, and fast.

The other story is of the rise of new, low-emissions technologies and a private sector forging on regardless, seizing opportunities as developers, financiers and adopters on the basis that the business case for making the shift is already clear. At COP26, as everywhere, big money talks. And the money is flowing.

Despite shunning the methane pledge in Glasgow, Australia is part of both stories.

“Unless you get the cost of this technology down, rather than focusing on putting the prices of energy up everywhere else, then you are not going to get countries actually achieving the things they say they want to achieve,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week, defending Australia’s refusal to increase its 2030 emissions reduction targets, as he headed for home after two days of leaders’ meetings at the summit.

“That is the practical task now. Post-COP26, it’s not about the ‘if’ and the ‘when’, it’s only about the ‘how’.”

But the “if” and “when” are inextricable from the “how” at a conference that is supposed to lay out the precise path to keeping the rise in the planet’s temperature at no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Former Australian negotiator and now climate and energy director at The Australia Institute Richie Merzian has been watching the stories unfold.

He says it’s more than disappointing that Morrison refused to upgrade Australia’s emissions reduction targets for 2030 from those set at the 2015 conference in Paris, which Morrison says he will “meet and beat”.

Merzian argues the decision left Australia – and Morrison – isolated. “The fact that he came here and missed the brief completely and missed the political significance of this moment – I think further damaged Australia’s global reputation,” he says.

At a time when Morrison is in a white-hot diplomatic stoush with France over submarines, Merzian argues the prime minister missed a political opportunity to elevate himself and stand with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United States President Joe Biden.

“If he hadn’t been such a recalcitrant on climate, then he would’ve stood alongside Boris, alongside Biden, on the world stage, calling out Russia and China.”

But Morrison is unrepentant about his choice. “We weren’t there to lecture others,” the prime minister says of his reluctance to pressure the big-emitting countries whose leaders did not attend. “We weren’t there to tell others what they should be doing. We were there to focus on what we were going to do and how we were going to contribute and work with others.”

The Morrison government is declining to formulate any active phase-out plan for fossil fuel use or production in Australia, and remains implacably opposed to anything that looks like a tax-based measure.

Instead, it hopes to promote enough growth in new low-emissions technologies to make them cheaper and more reliable, transforming them into a more attractive option than traditional fuel sources, and generating a voluntary, business-driven transition.

While Morrison’s critics in Australia and across the world argue there is now too little time to rely on carrots without sticks, he maintains the private sector rather than governments should lead the push.

“It’s the entrepreneurs, the industrialists, the financiers, working together with the scientists and the researchers, that will be delivering those technological solutions on the ground,” Morrison told journalists on Wednesday. “Our technology-led approach was well received by all of those I spoke with. They understand, like we understand, that if you want to actually deal with this, you must drive the costs of these low-emissions technologies down. So they’re realisable, so they’re scalable, so they’re affordable, not just in developed countries like Australia, but [in developing countries].”

But Merzian questions Australia’s role in that regard. He says many governments represented in Glasgow – including some significant players in the developing world – are taking unexpectedly positive steps to cut emissions and are beginning to redesign their economies under pressure from the US and summit hosts Britain. Far from standing against those that aren’t, Australia is now being lumped in with them.

“It’s providing cover for China and Russia to do less, rather than leading with its ‘forever friends’ the US and the UK,” Merzian says.

He points to countries such as India, which has upgraded its commitments and pledged to phase out fossil fuels, as an example of what Australia could also have done.

Instead, it is sending mixed messages with a newfound celebration of renewable energy and ongoing support for coal and gas.

Research by Merzian and his colleagues at The Australia Institute estimates the 72 new coal projects and 44 new gas and oil projects Australia has planned will create almost 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

He says this is equivalent to building 200 new coal-fired power stations.

“As the world comes together in Glasgow to fight climate change, Australia is putting its foot on the accelerator and doubling down on fossil-fuel expansion,” he says.

At its national pavilion, Australia is featuring rotating displays from companies engaged in developing climate-friendly technologies, including the Singapore–Australia co-owned Sun Cable, producing the world’s largest solar energy network.

There are those whose other businesses involve mining and gas extraction – Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, now promoting his Fortescue Future Industries’ expansion into green hydrogen, and Santos’s Kevin Gallagher, showcasing the new carbon capture and storage project at its Moomba gas plant in South Australia.

Santos’s display had an early slot at the Australia pavilion, refreshing debate about the viability of the experimental and not yet fully viable technology.

It is the first such project to be registered under the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, qualifying it for international carbon credits. Energy Minister Angus Taylor joined Gallagher at the pavilion to launch the $220 million project.

“This is the first time a national government will award tradable, high-integrity carbon credits to large-scale projects that capture and permanently store carbon underground,” Taylor said.

At the other end of the scale, Canberra-based start-up Mineral Carbonation International is engaged in a different process – carbon capture and utilisation – and is also showing its wares at the pavilion this week.

MCi is part of the second story of COP26, the booming new-technology developers that are leading decarbonisation.

The company captures the carbon emissions from heavy-industrial production and transforms them from gas to solid, turning them into building materials – low-carbon cement bricks and plasterboard. Chief operating officer Sophia Hamblin Wang says the process enables polluting industries to offset their emissions – potentially even into the negative – by creating a product that can be used in construction.

It has received a $14.6 million federal government grant to establish a demonstration plant in New South Wales.

“It will be the first and the largest plant of its kind in the world,” Hamblin Wang said this week. “We’ve built it in a mobile and modular way.”

In other words, it’s portable and can move from site to site, turning pollution into bricks.

Hamblin Wang is representing the company at COP26. Her luggage was jammed with samples of the products, including miniatures of the bricks, which she’s handing out like business cards. “Having a tactile product helps people understand what climate action looks like,” she says.

MCi has shot to prominence at the conference this week after Hamblin Wang defeated 2700 entrants to win the five-minute “pitch battle”, a contest between start-ups to pitch their decarbonisation ideas and wares to a global panel of assessors.

Invited to enter, MCi was the only Australian company to make the final 29. Progressing to the top 10, she and MCi were ultimately named the winners.

“There were so many really great innovative technologies – bright minds, bright teams,” she says. “Just watching gave me encouragement for the future.”

She is also seizing other opportunities where they emerge. Invited to attend the prime minister’s business roundtable on the Glasgow sidelines, she spoke about the need to encourage positive disruption to the emissions-laden status quo.

“I used the opportunity to say there are a lot of potentially disruptive technologies who don’t get a voice at those kinds of tables and don’t get to showcase at COP,” she says.

In an atmosphere steeped in the disappointment of major world leaders’ non-appearances and anxiety over the planet’s future, Hamblin Wang is an optimistic contrast.

“It’s hard to believe the amount of momentum and vibe and buzz here,” she says. “… The circular economy is so hot right now. Turning waste into new products is just really elegant and can be a key part of our future.”

Hamblin Wang is also full of praise for the big investors, the global finance that is “values-aligned and strategic”.

“This Glasgow COP is the place where we ratchet ambition for 2030, so I think most global governments have come here with an increased energy for collaboration and solving the problem.”

Exactly what they will do, and by when, remains the subject of negotiation in the conference rooms just down the hall.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Warmed-over targets".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.