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Australia is the perfect size to lead on climate



In the front half of 2019, radio shock jock and Sky News commentator Alan Jones — aided by former prime ministerial chief of staff Peta Credlin — went on a bizarre tirade about climate change. In this rant, Jones used a bowl of rice to make a point regarding the supposed insignificance of Australia's carbon emissions on a global scale. Key to his argument is the fact that Australia produces less than two per cent of the world's carbon emissions.

Firefighter stands on the edge of a burning Australia, displaying a sign reading 'climate change' to the rest of the world. Artwork by Chris JohnstonJones' segment was roundly mocked for his strange analogising, but his attitude — that Australia is too small to make a difference on carbon emissions — is shared by many. It puts him in good company with, for example, Emissions Reduction Minister Angus 'Fantastic, Great Move' Taylor and a minor political player called Scott Morrison (you may have heard of him).

Like all good misleading claims, there is a grain of truth to be found here: it is true that if Australia were the only country in the world to reduce its carbon emissions, there would be no chance of slowing anthropogenic climate change. 

This line of thinking has been countered by many — including satirist Charlie Pickering in a masterful parody of Jones' own hot take — who observe that around 40 per cent of the world's carbon emissions are produced by countries with similar outputs to Australia. Collectively these countries can make a significant difference if each reduces their carbon emissions. Additionally, Australia is notoriously one of the largest emitters of carbon per capita in the world, a number made much worse when taking into account our coal exports.

That said, while Australia can definitely make a difference as part of a collective effort, our real ability to effect change actually lies elsewhere. 

Australia quite proudly punches above its weight in many arenas, yet we are failing to take a leadership role in debating climate change. Despite the bluster and jingoism of many conservative pundits on our ability to compete internationally in other fields, Australia's capacity to influence global climate policy is frequently downplayed by the current government and their journalistic allies. 

Even worse than supposed irrelevance, however, is Australia's active scuttling of international efforts to tackle climate change. The clearest case in point comes from the COP25 conference last year, where Australia was one of the few hold-outs on coming to an agreement for a new global carbon market. Though we were not alone, Australia was credited as one of the strongest and most significant opponents to the scheme.


"The right thing to do is the right thing to do, regardless of who else is doing it. As a wealthy nation — with a high potential for uptake of renewable energy — we are in a position to lead by example."


Furthermore, Australia continued to argue for its use of carry-over credits in reaching Paris Agreement targets (despite such a move being labelled 'cheating' by Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the agreement). Our evasion of the tepid Paris Agreement targets is especially disheartening, given a general consensus that the targets are nowhere near ambitious enough to curb the worst effects of climate change.

It is basic diplomacy to know that the fewer allies one has, the harder it becomes to hold out. If Australia began batting for the team of climate action, we would weaken the position of staunch advocates for the status quo. Moreover, given Australia's status as a relatively wealthy country (with much of that wealth generated from a fossil fuel-powered mining boom) our voice lends weight to the argument that fossil fuels are not the future. 

I am not alone in this thought; strange bedfellows Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop have stressed the need for Australia to become global leaders in the fight against climate change. In particular, the backdrop of the ongoing fire catastrophe provides the perfect leverage for us to put pressure on our allies for significant, tangible action. Economically, ecologically and emotionally Australia cannot continue to endure tragedies of this scale on an increasingly regular basis. 

In a recent interview regarding the link between climate change and our bushfires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the 'suggestion there's any one emissions reduction policy or climate policy that has contributed directly to any of these fire events is just ridiculous'. Predictably, in light of his current popularity, this comment has gone down like a lead balloon. He isn't, however, technically wrong. 

There is no one single climate policy that has led us to this point. Rather, there have been decades of successive policy failures by many governments across the globe. Australia has been one of those that has failed to act and, in doing so, has emboldened others who refuse to make substantiative commitments. 

Real climate action is needed and needed urgently. The right thing to do is the right thing to do, regardless of who else is doing it. As a wealthy nation — with a high potential for uptake of renewable energy — we are in a position to lead by example. Subsequently, Australia can no longer afford to point our finger at others, like school children, and stubbornly demand they take the jump before we do.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a teacher, masters student and freelance writer based in Brisbane. He writes on politics, education, media, societal issues, and the intersection of all of the above.

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, coal, climate change, coal, Scott Morrison, fires



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Existing comments

My take on the argument is that the same logic could be used to justify stealing from a large organisation. Let's say I steal stuff worth $10 or even $100 from Woolworths. That loss would make no perceptible difference to their bottom line or the value of a share in the company. Therefore stealing is OK. But not in my book!

Mike Hales | 17 January 2020  

I have previously challenged Eureka Street articles on climate change because I have found them to be a little too filled with outrage. This is the best article I have seen. I do wish that it didn’t have those couple of barbs against our leaders (although I can understand why they are there) because ultimately we must unite to resolve this issue - and in fact that’s what the article argues at a global level. I was happy to share this in my social media feeds.

Rob MCCahill | 17 January 2020  

A well presented number of facts and opinions. It's difficult to write criticism without appearing a climate change "denier"; I will try. The summary paragraph relies heavily on "the right thing to do" as the way forward and the article shapes climate change action as the way, citing Paris Agreement targets already under scrutiny. I'd urge readers to familiarize themselves with the great future shock coming in the carbon offsets which is the cessation of reduction of environmental forest area a few years ago and now how a few million hectares lost to fire will impact the achievement of targets. Aiming is fine but achieving is the skill. I, like many Australians previously rejected a carbon tax but any examination of 2020 can now see that tax can be Australia's instrument to be a world leader; other coal producing nations will follow when government's understand the revenue potential. It will require sophisticated legislation to protect any revenue to other than renewable and climate control purposes. We're only comparatively wealthy and highly reliant on export revenue; it will take some smarts to escape trade deficit but if any country can hold the climate attention appeal of the world it's Australia.

Ray | 19 January 2020  

The bushfire threat can only be managed by controlled burning and selective logging opening access trails for brave firefighters. The consequence is that this controlled burning will put significantly increase our carbon dioxide emissions. These bush fires are reported to have produced 66% of our total annual emissions. So some token reductions like you call for are meaningless. Wake up Australia.

Joe Sicher | 20 January 2020  

Ze politicians here are clinging to coal as an energy source because it is cheap, plentiful and brings the country lots of dollars in royalties. A transition from coal to nuclear backed renewables would be ze sensible way forward. An abundance of sun and uranium could power ze nation and close neighbouring nations.

Egor Dubrovnick | 20 January 2020  

The key to managing CO2 emissions is to realise we must manage Demand. Attempting to manage Supply by refusing to mine or export coal won't reduce emissions because others will step in to our place. Managing demand requires us to support competing energy sources. This is possible today without subsidies because the costs and time to build now favour wind and solar energy sources. So, we must encourage countries, which are major emitters of CO2, including ourselves, to use renewable energy to compete with coal. At the level of a household, installing a solar PV system is a step in this direction. Similar arguments can be made for oil, for example, by replacing petrol/diesel/gas vehicles with electric vehicles as the opportunity arises. These actions work, because it reduces Demand for coal and oil based energy. Company actions include plants powered by renewable energy. Government actions that have an impact on the world stage include removing subsidies, taxing CO2 emissions (perhaps with compensation to end users), and taxing exports of coal to countries which do not support emissions reduction. Other Government actions could include supporting domestic and private efforts in various ways.

Peter Horan | 20 January 2020  

Well written Tim. Three quick points. 1. Prof Ross Garnaut summarised Australia’s record on climate change well; we have been “a drag on the international effort”. 2. An emissions percapita comparison is the only just way to discuss countries’ reponsibility in working to mitigate climate change. 3. Surely I’m not the first to think one side of Australian politics could have been labelled the COALition.

Gerard Hore | 20 January 2020  

Pickering’s analogy to Australia in WW2 fails. Australia went to war in 1939 aware of all the other anti-fascist nations’ commitments. It was a team effort from the start. Try to imagine Australia choosing to go to war against Germany and Japan if England, France, and a host of other nations great and small were not so committed. Even if one believes that we are causing catastrophic global warming (which I don’t), what would be the point of creating immediate significant poverty in our own backyard for the sake of avoiding alleged catastrophic global warming, when we know that the vast bulk of other nations, great and small, won’t go down the same self-abusive path to an extent that will make the slightest difference to the global temperature?

HH | 24 January 2020  

Tim, I believe your commentary hits the nail right on the head.Our dependence on coal exports is a economic disaster waiting to happen. Our two biggest customers, India and China are both investing heavily in renewable energy as they can see the economic benefits of not being beholden to a third country for their energy resources. It will take time for these renewable energy sources to come on line but once they do, "it's good bye Australia!" What then for the Lucky Country?

Gavin O'Brien | 27 January 2020  

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