This week a record number of more than 130 countries will gather in New York to sign the Paris Climate agreement that was thrashed out last December. In doing so, they are acknowledging that human-induced climate pollution from burning fossil fuels is driving dangerous changes to our climate – and they are on board to tackle the problem.

Australia will be among those nations gathered in New York – but despite seeking to project a perception of credibility on climate, the Turnbull Government is still implementing the retrogressive policies from the Abbott era – and that needs to change.

Australia will be among those nations gathered in New York – but despite seeking to project a perception of credibility on climate, the Turnbull Government is still implementing the retrogressive policies from the Abbott era – and that needs to change.

The warming ocean has left the Great Barrier Reef in peril. Significant parts of the reef – up to 95 per cent in the northern half – have already bleached and it's not yet known how much of the deathly whitened coral will survive. Unless pollution trends are reversed, the world's coral reefs are predicted to be gone within 25 years.

In the months since the Paris Agreement, successive extreme heat records have been smashed, including the record for the hottest year ever – which 2015 won at a canter. Already we have hit the 1 degree of warming threshold and have pumped enough pollution into the atmosphere to reach 400 parts per million – edging perilously close to the 450ppm danger zone.

There were tears of relief when the Paris Agreement was finalised. But many rightly pointed to the task ahead. Even Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop stated: "Our work here is done and now we can return home to implement this historic agreement."

Speaking on behalf of the Umbrella Group of Countries, a loose coalition of non-European developed nations, Julie Bishop went further stating the Paris Agreement "recognises that our common purpose is to hold global temperature rise well below 2 degrees, keeping 1.5 degrees in our sights and that this will require a long term transformation to an emissions neutral and climate resilient world".

These are welcome words, but stacked up against Australia's woeful climate policy record – they ring hollow and fail to convince. Let's break down recent Australian government climate policy against Ms Bishop's words.

These are welcome words, but stacked up against Australia's woeful climate policy record – they ring hollow and fail to convince. Let's break down recent Australian government climate policy against Ms Bishop's words.

Firstly, Australia's current pollution reduction targets of 26-28 per cent pollution reduction by 2030 are nearly the weakest of any developed nation. If the rest of the world adopted such poor targets, we would likely see global warming of 3-4 degrees – with much more devastating impacts than we are currently witnessing.

Far from nurturing a vibrant and agile renewable energy sector, recent Australian governments have mounted what looks more like a long-running and sustained attack on renewable energy in Australia.

This has resulted in an 88 per cent reduction in investment in 2014 and a weakened Renewable Energy Target. It has effectively stymied progress in the sector at the very time we needed to be stepping up as a global renewable energy leader – and comes despite the fact the Australian public, through rooftop solar PV, has been among the leading adopters of clean energy globally.

At the same time, we've witnessed the Australian government unsuccessfully trying to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Australian Renewable Energy Agency. These vital agencies were only saved in the Senate – but the signal from the Federal government was clear for all to see.

Moreover, those carbon abatement mechanisms that have been set up are floundering. Despite $2.55 billion being committed to Australia's much-vaunted Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), market analysts RepuTex have found that Australia's emissions growth is significantly outpacing abatement contracted. The ERF instead uses taxpayer funds and reverse auctions to buy pollution reduction without getting to the heart of the problem – how to break our addiction to the dirty energy sector.

Added to all this, the government has only committed to review Australia's inadequate raft of climate policies in 2017 – meaning unnecessary delays and offering no certainty that better policies will be implemented any time in the next 12 months.

This inglorious litany of weak policy settings and lack of tangible support for the growth of the renewable energy sector bespeaks Australia's inability to break the shackles of the fossil fuel industry. It was captured neatly during the Paris climate conference by the global Climate Change Performance Index, which placed Australia third from last in climate policies, above only Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

It was captured neatly during the Paris climate conference by the global Climate Change Performance Index, which placed Australia third from last in climate policies, above only Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

Despite fine words in international forums, Australia's carbon pollution from the electricity sector has been steadily increasing. Reporting by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows clearly that changes in the fuel mix – particularly an increase in coal – is driving this pollution growth. 

And to top it off, the government has approved one of the biggest coalmines in the world – Adani's Carmichael coal proposal in the Galilee Basin – a veritable carbon bomb that would strongly contribute to pushing global warming over the 2-degree limit.

So while the world is desperately trying to avert a climate catastrophe and our coral reefs are fighting for their lives, the Australian government is standing alongside global leaders in New York this week having done very little to meaningfully address the problem. 

All scenarios that limit global warming to well below 2 degrees require a clean energy transformation that includes rapidly getting carbon pollution out of the energy sector. That means replacing coal-burning power plants with clean renewable energy, an end to new coalmines and fossil fuel developments and a massive ramp up in energy efficiency.

Australia has become the hollow man of the Paris Climate Agreement – spouting fine words in the international spotlight but ultimately bringing nothing substantial to the table.

  • Kelly O'Shanassy is chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation
  • This article first appeared in the SMH online
  • Image by Xanthe Rivett / ACF

Kelly O'Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.