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At ‘humanity’s last chance’ Australia was notorious for the prevalence of its talks and displays supporting fossil fuels. By Tim Flannery.

Australia turned Glasgow into fossil fuel ‘coffee shop’

Prince Charles with Scott Morrison during COP26 in Glasgow.
Credit: Alex Ellinghausen / Nine

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties meetings, colloquially known as COPs, have been taking place almost yearly for 27 years. In the beginning they were modest affairs, hardly noticed by the world as a whole. More recently they have grown to become some of the largest and most important of global meetings.

The most important COPs – such as COP15 in Copenhagen, where it was hoped a global treaty on climate change would be agreed; COP21 in Paris, where a global agreement was finally reached; and this month’s COP26 in Glasgow, where it was hoped national pledges sufficient to honour the Paris Agreement would be made – are attended by many world leaders and their negotiating teams, along with scientists, business leaders, observers, the media and diverse groups of protesters.

Such COPs are massive events that present major challenges for the host cities. Roads are blocked, barricades erected, and almost inevitably long delays occur in getting into the venues. Inside, tens of thousands of people attend hundreds of simultaneous meetings and other events, making it very hard for most attendees to know whether much progress is being made.

This time, as a result of efforts to prevent COP26 becoming a Covid-19 superspreader event, observers found it exceedingly difficult to enter the rooms where negotiations were going on, making the Glasgow meeting more opaque than usual. Mistrust quickly spread. Greta Thunberg’s “Blah blah blah” speech accurately caught the mood of exclusion felt by many protesters and observers. This was eventually appreciated in the negotiating rooms. On the last day of negotiations, in an act of support for those who had been locked out, hundreds of observers left the meeting and joined the protesters who were thronging the streets surrounding the venue.

Because they give the public a means of engaging, demonstrations are an important part of the COP. On the first weekend of the COP an estimated 250,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Glasgow. The crowds included people from all over Britain. Huge pelotons of cyclists rode in from Edinburgh, 75 kilometres away. Others walked in on stilts playing violins. Yet others had constructed enormous papier-mâché puppets for the occasion. I even saw a small group of Australian expats dressed in koala suits to protest the damage Australia’s Black Summer megafires have done to biodiversity. With the exception of a very tight and determined-looking phalanx of socialists, the mood of the marches was cheerful and friendly.

Many scientists regarded COP26 as humanity’s last chance to avoid catastrophic climate change. To achieve this, nations needed to step up with pledges sufficient to honour the Paris Agreement and to prevent average global temperatures rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. With the most recent scientific reports indicating that we must cut out the use of fossil fuels by about 2035 to achieve this, it was always going to be a difficult task. In the end the pledges at Glasgow will see temperatures peak at 1.8-1.9 degrees, but countries agreed to meet again in 2022 to tighten pledges further. While we collectively dangle by a thread over the climate abyss, the agreement to meet 12 months from now at least keeps hope alive.

Australia has been a blocker of action on climate change ever since Tony Abbott became prime minister in 2013. At every subsequent COP, Australia has aligned itself with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia to protect the wealth it accrues through exporting oil and gas, regardless of the consequences for the world. I’ve attended six COPs and have watched on in deep shame as Australia argues that the money earned through its fossil fuel exports is more important than the survival of its low-lying Pacific neighbours such as Tuvalu. Sadly, Australia acted no differently at COP26. What was different, however, was the near universal disgust Australia earned in response.

The Australian pavilion was set up much like a coffee shop and it quickly became known as the best place in the entire sprawling venue to get coffee. It also quickly became notorious for its lack of an Indigenous presence, and for the prevalence of displays and talks supporting fossil fuels. For the few days that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor graced the meeting, there was even a large installation demonstrating how the gas company Santos intended to use carbon capture and storage as they accessed more gas from central Australia. The fact that it vanished soon after Taylor left the meeting suggests that at least some Australians have a sense of shame. It may have been just bad luck, but I saw neither Morrison nor Taylor at the COP. I waited all afternoon at the Australian pavilion one day to hear a press conference by Taylor, but he never showed up. The gossip was that the presence of bushfire survivor Jo Dodds scared him off.

Australia’s pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to reduce emissions to 2030 by a mere 26-28 per cent, were seen as grossly inadequate by almost everyone I spoke to at the meeting. Inexplicably, the modelling detailing how Australia was to reach that target was released only once Morrison and Taylor had left the COP. The modelling is, quite frankly, appalling. It assumes Australia will increase gas exports out to 2050, that “new” technologies will somehow arise to help reduce emissions, and, astonishingly, that Australia will not even reach its own target of full carbon neutrality by 2050. It also assumes the federal government will not use legislation to achieve the target. This approach, called “The Australian Way” by the Morrison government, is certainly unique. No Australian state, nor even local council, has adopted it, nor has any other nation. While most developed nations are listening to the science and sprinting towards their goal of carbon neutrality, The Australian Way is in fact an Australian crawl that will see climate change overwhelm us before it can be fully implemented.

At previous COPs Australia has had plenty of places to hide as it tries to block progress. But at COP26 its intransigence stood out like a sore thumb. There was a mood of determination to take effective action on climate change that I had not seen before. Even the likes of Saudi Arabia seemed unwilling to overtly spruik fossil fuels. Britain, as the host nation, played an important role in helping to create that mood. When COP president Alok Sharma was forced to accept a watering down of the COP statement on ending coal, he cried. His tears were, as far as I could see, genuine.

It was astonishing for an Australian to see just how determined the Tory government of Boris Johnson was to encourage decisive action on climate change. They had worked tirelessly for months prior to the COP, forging agreements to end coal use, reduce methane emissions and protect forests. The agreements announced on these matters during the COP helped create momentum in the negotiating room. Among the more significant announcements during the meeting were India’s first ever pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions (by 2070), and a joint statement by China and the United States (the world’s largest emitters) to take greater action on climate change.

During the meeting Glasgow was festooned with billboards announcing initiatives on cleaner, greener ways of doing things. The Scots had passed their climate act in 2009 and had reached their target of a 42 per cent reduction in emissions in 2016 – four years early. Despite the fact that Scotland produces much oil and gas from the North Sea, and has industries dependent on the resource, nobody I spoke to had the slightest doubt of the need for change. Indeed, I endured several lectures from several Glaswegian taxi drivers, whose accents can be difficult to penetrate, on the virtues of wind power and electric vehicles.

One constant presence around the Australian pavilion was Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. He has become a great believer in hydrogen to replace fossil fuels and is set to invest many billions in speeding up the transition. I cannot remember a previous COP where business leaders were so at odds with Australia’s message. And perhaps in that there is hope.

If Australia is to play its part in saving us from a catastrophic climate future, we will need to come to COP27, held in Egypt next year, with greatly improved targets for greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. Given the Coalition’s track record, it seems likely only a change of government could achieve that. The 2022 Australian election therefore takes on enormous portent for the entire planet. Should we fail again, Earth’s climate system won’t give us another chance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Australia turned Glasgow into fossil fuel ‘coffee shop’".

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Tim Flannery is an author, chief councillor of the Climate Council, and distinguished visiting fellow at the Australian Museum.