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Back of the pack: Australia now the worst OECD country for climate change action

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Australia has become the worst-performing of all OECD countries when it comes to climate change, and will soon become a global pariah unless federal policies change fast, experts warn.

It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first democratic leader to outline a green-centred plan for rebuilding the country and creating jobs when the coronavirus crisis ends.

One of Australia’s leading experts in climate change, Professor Will Steffen said the UK’s announcement has left Australia in the dust.

“The UK is the first country to put forward a concrete plan but other OECD counties, particularly the Nordic ones – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – already have advanced plans,” he told The New Daily. 

“We and the United States are stumbling around while most European countries are trying to get it done.”

He said depending on how the US election plays out, Australia could soon become an outlier.

“We’re pretty much alone now and who knows how the US is going to go,” Professor Steffen said.

“If the election changes the government, you’ll see much more action on climate change. They’ve got great wind resources. They’ve got enormous tech capability. If they get the politics right, they could change fast.

Australia is lagging behind its peers when it comes to climate change. Photo: AAP

“We have enormous renewable sources, but we’re being held back by politics.”

The stark warning we have fallen behind the pack comes as new analysis from WWF reveals that in terms of committing to stimulus spending on renewables, Australia lags even further behind.

We are currently spending five times less than the conservative UK government and 10 times less than South Korea – a major trading partner.

The European Union has committed $400 billion to a renewable recovery stimulus, while Germany has committed $59 billion, France $58 billion, South Korea $52 billion and the UK $35 billion.

Comparatively, Australia committed just $2.5 billion, the report notes.

“While these commitments are significant and important positive steps, when compared to the measures taken by other countries, including our major trading partners, it is clear there is still much to be done,” it reads.

“We need to go further to capitalise on the huge economic and environmental opportunities that renewable industries represent for Australia.”

The government has focused Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19 on fossil fuels, namely gas.

Australia has committed just $2.5 billion to renewable stimulus, behind France and Germany.

Last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government would reset the east coast gas market by unlocking supply and creating dozens of new gas basins for mining.

“To help fire our economic recovery, the next plank in our JobMaker plan is to deliver more Australian gas where it is needed at an internationally competitive price,” the PM said.

“We’ll work with industry to deliver a gas hub for Australia that will ensure households and businesses enjoy the benefits of our abundant local gas while we hold our position as one of the top global liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporters.”

Both the energy industry and climate change experts have slammed the plan, saying it will only benefit the gas industry and comes as all intentional markets are moving towards renewables. 

Coal is dying

Chris Barfoot was a third-generation coal miner. He worked at Hazelwood, Victoria’s now decommissioned coal-fired power plant.

Many in coal communities see the writing on the wall.

“I worked in coal for 35 years. I’m third generation, but the simple fact down here is coal is dying,” he said.

“We recognise the power stations here are going to close and they won’t be replaced.”

Chris Barfoot is a third-generation coal miner. Photo: Chris Barfoot

Mr Barfoot has transferred his skills into renewables and is consulting on what will be Australia’s first offshore wind farm, Star of the South.

“I sided with the devil and went green. But the thing is the jobs we’ve built here. You don’t lose when you go to renewables. You’re just changing the fuel source,” he said.

“Let’s be blunt, coal will never let us achieve our carbon target. Wind power will.”

But some say it’s already too late, and Australia is going to need to do much more to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University and author of Rise and Fall of the Carbon Civilisation Patrick Moriarty said it ‘‘won’t be easy’’ moving to renewables this late in the piece.

“Our emissions per capita are high by OECD standards. We have much higher per capita emissions than European countries or Japan,” Dr Moriarty said.

Australia’s coal exports are adding to our international carbon emissions. Photo: Getty

“We should have started 30 years ago when the IPCC warned us about climate change. But we didn’t. In fact, until a decade ago the percentage of renewable energy was falling.”

He said it was increasingly likely that cutting down fossil fuels would mean cutting back on behaviours we enjoy – like international travel.

“Quite frankly moving to renewable energy won’t stop climate change in the next decade or two. We’re going to have to cut back on fossil fuel by cutting back on energy use,” he said.

“We’ll have to reduce our energy consumption. We have to move to de-growth.

“We’ll have to stop the growth economy. We’re living on a finite world and we cannot have infinite expansion.”

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