In a global race to reduce pollution, Australia is an outlier. It is one of the dirtiest countries per capita and a huge global supplier of fossil fuels.
Unusually for a wealthy nation, it also burns coal for most of its electricity.
Australia’s emissions target for 2030, a 26 percent reduction from 2005 levels, is half of the US and UK benchmarks.
Canberra has also resisted joining the two-thirds of countries that have committed to net zero emissions by 2050.
And instead of removing coal, the worst fossil fuel, he vows to dig for more.
So it’s no wonder Australia is seen as a “bad boy” entering the global climate talks at COP26 in Glasgow, analysts say.
The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under enormous pressure to do more.
Loyalty to the industry
Mining has helped power Australia’s economy for decades, and coal remains the country’s second most important export.
Only Indonesia sells more coal than Australia globally.
The government often attributes much of the country’s wealth to coal, but many analysts argue that this is overstated.
Coal exports totaled AU $ 55 billion last year, but mining companies kept most of this wealth. Less than a tenth went to Australia directly, that’s about 1 percent of national income.
The 40,000-person coal workforce is about half the size of McDonald’s in Australia. But coal jobs sustain some rural communities.
The mining sector has always been influential in Canberra.
Although most voters want tougher climate action, some coal cities find themselves in shifting constituencies that are key to winning elections.
The mining lobby has “distorted” many policies over the years, says Professor Samantha Hepburn, a climate law expert at Deakin University.
The current government dismantled Australia’s emissions trading scheme in 2014, shortly after gaining power in a campaign heavily backed by mining interests.
Never again was there an attempt to price carbon or restrict emissions from fossil fuel producers.
Instead, it has provided additional support for coal. This includes:
- Approval of new mines and extensions: There are more than 80 proposed projects, including plant improvements.
- Tax subsidies: About AU $ 10 billion went to fossil fuel companies last year alone
- Investments in ‘clean coal’: Schemes such as carbon capture and storage, often criticized as ineffective
Chasing a shrinking market
Australia maintains that coal will continue to generate national wealth for decades to come.
It raises demand in Asia, particularly in the industrializing economies.
Only China and India account for 64 percent of global coal consumption. Demand in Indonesia and Vietnam has also increased.
But analysts say there is no long-term market as countries compete to meet emissions targets.
The largest coal buyers in Australia, Japan, South Korea and China have all committed to reaching net zero targets by mid-century.
Coal use has already plummeted in North America and Europe. The wealthy G7 nations and China, as well as many banks, have pledged to stop financing coal projects abroad.
“Australia knows the party is over. But the police have not been called yet. So they will continue to party until they are arrested,” says Richie Merzian, a climate expert at the Australia Institute.
Missing the green opportunity?
Australia could end its literally toxic relationship with coal rather quickly, experts say.
Its economy is stable and well diversified to absorb the loss of coal exports.
But Australia controversially views liquefied natural gas, another dirty fuel, as its next great source of domestic energy.
The government has already pledged $ 500 million for new plants and gas basins, defying global calls to end new fossil fuel projects.
This has frustrated those who say Australia should invest to become a renewable energy superpower.
As one of the sunniest and windiest continents on Earth, Australia is “in a unique position to benefit economically” from its abundant natural resources, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization.
Its industries are also well positioned to pivot into new export markets such as green steel and aluminum.
Advocates say coal workers could instead mine rare minerals needed for batteries and magnets that will power renewable energy grids.
Canberra has invested some money in renewables, but most of it comes from state governments and companies.
His allegiance to fossil fuels has thwarted progress, critics say.
The government has cut its spending on renewable energy in recent years and there is no current national clean energy target.
He also withdrew from the UN Green Climate Fund and tried to change the mandate of a local fund so that taxpayer money could go to coal projects.
“The rest of the world is accelerating the pace of coal,” says the Climate Council, a group of scientists.
“Australia can choose to seize the opportunities of this transition or stay poorer and less secure.”