In the international Climate Change Performance index, Australia ranked fifth-last out of 58 countries. So where to from here, and where does climate sit with the incoming President Trump?

Amid the shock and dismay that greeted the victory of Donald Trump in the recent US election, one could be excused for having missed the not insignificant news that the Australian government ratified the Paris Climate Agreement on the day after the election. 

It was at least a signal that the Australian government is still committed to meaningful action to reduce climate pollution – and in a Trump-elect world that suddenly seems like a cause for optimism. 

Owing to Australia’s special relationship with the USA, as well as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull’s shared backgrounds as business leaders – our Prime Minister might be in an ideal position to exert influence on the new President.

Our Prime Minister might be in an ideal position to exert influence on the new President

The business case for action on climate change was just reinforced by a statement from more than 360 businesses and investors in the US, including more than a dozen Fortune 500 firms. They  confirmed strong support for the Paris Agreement and the need to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, stating that “Implementing the Paris Climate Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy prosperity to all.”

Our Prime Minister could emphasis that opportunity, but lately he seems to have forgotten it himself.  

Australia still has a long way to match global momentum toward lowering carbon pollution and growing clean energy. The era of coal, which is the biggest driver of Australia’s global warming pollution, is over. But judging from recent comments of both Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott, Australia has somehow missed the memo. 

Right now the COP22 climate change conference is underway in Marrakesh.  The Paris climate agreement has already been ratified by 109 countries representing 76 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and many more countries are in the process of ratifying.

As UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said this week, there is already “unstoppable” global commitment to action, and it remains clear that countries that lead now will benefit later. They will benefit financially because all over the world countries are choosing clean energy over dirty and technology innovations are happening so quickly that costs associated with renewable energy are dropping precipitously.

The International Energy Agency recently reported that in 2015 renewables surpassed coal to become the largest source of global electricity capacity. Over the next 5 years it’s estimated that 2.5 wind turbines and 30,000 solar panels will be installed every hour across the world. Renewables are expected to cover more than 60 per cent of global power capacity growth over that time.

Those tied to the coal industry can continue to claim that coal has a bright future, but the market shift that is occurring is starting to concentrate the minds of politicians that recognise the short and long-term threats that such pollution poses. Global consumption of coal fell 1.8 per cent in 2015 and is now on the lowest level since 2005. 

Despite the fact that Australia has some of the world’s best renewable energy resources and world-leading innovators in renewable technologies, Australia remains behind the pack globally on efforts to transition from dirty energy. 1.5 million households have invested in rooftop solar and states like South Australia, Victoria and Queensland are leading with strong renewable energy targets, but nationally we have suffered from weak climate change policy, renewable energy policy uncertainty, confused investment signals and politicians that appear handcuffed to the dirty fossil fuels of the past.

When under global scrutiny, these failings become evident. The international Climate Change Performance index, released this week by Climate Action Network Europe and GermanWatch, shows that Australia ranks fifth-last out of 58 countries assessed in terms of our overall performance. That is because on a range of indicators that capture both policy and hard data on our greenhouse pollution, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, we simply fall short compared to other nations. 

Australia’s low ranking largely boils down to our reliance on old, outdated electricity generation

Australia’s low ranking largely boils down to our reliance on old, outdated electricity generation dominated by dirty fossil fuels like coal. Unless we move fast to transform how we generate and use energy, it will be near impossible for Australia to meet our inadequate Paris climate commitments of 26-28 per cent pollution reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, let alone higher targets that will be expected under the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile we will be adding further harm to the health of our community; our air, land, and water; and the places we love like the Great Barrier Reef.   

The longer we delay, the taller that order becomes.

So, while Australia may now be in a unique position to encourage President-elect Donald Trump to get on board with the global momentum toward ushering in a clean energy revolution – even if for economic reasons - the Australian Government needs the same urging.

In Marrakesh, Australia just received the ‘Fossil of the Day’ award because the Australian Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg was caught complaining to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz about American charities standing in solidarity with Australian communities who are fighting to prevent the construction of the largest ever coal mine down under - Adani’s Carmichael mine. 

In the words of the award panel, “Australia ratified the Paris Agreement last Friday, so lobbying for coal expansion at the United Nations climate negotiations is an ugly, ugly thing to be doing. Shape up, Australia.” 

It seems our Government should heed the warning. It’s time to stop doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry and take responsible action to systematically retire old coal-burning power plants, stop approving new mines and lead the transition to clean energy.

Suzanne Harter

Climate Change Campaigner