The state of Australia’s environment and climate policy is complex.

Competing voices are ever-present on social and mainstream media, making getting to, and understanding, the facts difficult.

Here, we break down the issues and complexities of Australia’s climate crisis, including examining the nation’s recent climate policy history, the current health of Australia’s environment, what it means to hold a fair share of climate responsibility and why the world is looking to Australia to step up. 

Australia’s Recent Climate Policy History

In 2015, 196 countries adopted the Paris agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, with the goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, each country agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.

As part of the Paris agreement, Australia set its climate policy as a cut of emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Australia’s Current Climate Landscape

The seven years between 2013 and 2019 were the warmest years Australia has recorded since national records began in 1910. In 2020, a report by the Australian National University ranked the nation’s overall environmental health at 3 out of 10. Despite the bleak reality, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long said Australia will meet its Paris accord target “in a canter.”

Morrison also claims Australia has had a 19% reduction in emissions since 2005.

Climate experts state, however, that Morrison’s claim stems from creative accounting and that any major dips in emissions haven't come from concrete structural shifts or a ​​significant reduction in fossil fuel use, but rather COVID-19 and a major drop in land-clearing and forest destruction.

Excluding land-use, Australia’s carbon pollution has in fact risen by 7% from 2005.

Where is the world at right now? 

The world remains firmly off track to meet the agreed temperature thresholds. Global greenhouse gas emissions dipped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after rising steadily for decades, and are now rebounding in 2021. The past decade has been the warmest on record, contributing to more frequent and intense weather events like floods and droughts. If global emissions aren't halved by the end of the decade, scientists warn it will be impossible to keep average temperatures within the Paris agreement limits. 

What happened at Biden’s climate summit in April? 

In late April 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted a two-day climate summit with the hope that world leaders would attend and make major new commitments to cutting global carbon emissions by 2030. During the summit, the US announced an ambitious new plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, from 2005 levels, by the end of the decade, while the UK promised to cut emissions by 78% on 1990 levels by 2035.

While Morrison attended the virtual gathering, he refused to commit to a net-zero by 2050 target nor change the nation’s current policy. 

Instead, he said future generations would “thank us not for what we have promised, but what we deliver.”

Why is it important that Australia commit to a target? 

Over 120 countries have now put a target in place to reach net-zero emissions, with the vast majority choosing 2050.

Cam Walker, the campaigns coordinator at Friends of the Earth Australia, said actually committing to a solid target is imperative. 

"Morrison's claim that we will be thanked for what we do is correct, but his sound bite is dangerous propaganda because Australia has both under-promised and under-delivered,” Walker told Global Citizen. “Instead, the Prime Minister has decided to align himself with countries like China, Russia and Brazil, whose current energy policies will lead to catastrophic global warming if all other nations adopted similar positions.”

Will Steffen, a climate expert and councillor at Climate Council, echoed Walker’s comments.

"The commitment should be followed by what you deliver,” he said. “Given our present rate of emissions, we need to get our emissions cut by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 and hit net-zero by 2035. There are some very hard and firm scientific principles behind this; we can do the math based on those principles. It's important that we get emissions down really fast and really deeply and hit net-zero not by some indeterminate date, which the government says, but by 2035.”

Australia is an island nation with a relatively small population. So why are the nation’s actions important?

For Steffen, the answer is twofold.

"Amongst wealthy countries, countries in the OECD, [Australia] has the highest per capita emission rate. The way to judge a country is not by its population, but by how many emissions per person it makes,” he explained. “Second of all, [Australia] exports a lot of coal and a lot of gas. When you add those emissions in, we rank as the fifth or sixth biggest emitter out of 200 countries around the world. The only countries ahead of us are the big ones; China, the United States, Russia, and India.”

Steffen added: “We are a major player, and the rest of the world expects us to do our fair share to get emissions down.” 

What’s next?

Morrison is now facing pressure from key allies to step up during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, taking place this November. Stepping up will look like: committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, significantly increasing its 2030 target to upwards of a 45% cut and for the nation to resume climate finance through the Green Climate Fund — the key tool to assist developing countries with climate mitigation and adaptation.

International pressure has so far stemmed from US, European and UK ambassadors, high commissioners and deputy heads. 

Diplomats from these states as well as representatives from Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Switzerland have met throughout the year in Canberra to discuss how best to encourage Australia to lift its climate ambition ahead of November, according to the Guardian.

COP26 will run from Nov. 1 to Nov. 12. 

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign by taking action here to defend the planet and defeat poverty, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Why Is the World Looking to Australia to Act on the Climate Crisis?

By Madeleine Keck