As the COP28 climate summit gets underway in the oil production hub of the United Arab Emirates today, Australia’s climate minister Chris Bowen will detail our progress in meeting emissions cut targets and updated projections.
This is likely to give Bowen a spring in his step, when combined with last week’s funding announcement on renewables and storage. From this strengthened platform, he will argue Australia can be trusted to meet its climate goals.
Next week Bowen heads to Dubai to lead Australia’s negotiating team. He can expect international pressure to be more ambitious in setting the nation’s 2035 target. This is essential if we are to keep 1.5°C within reach. Scientists consistently say wealthy countries such as Australia should be cutting their emissions by 50 to 75% by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
But Bowen can also expect a different pressure, as efforts to phase down or phase out fossil fuels such as Australia’s gas and coal gather pace.
What role will Australia play in COP28 negotiations?
At COP28, Australian negotiators are likely to have two broad objectives. The first is to achieve ambitious emissions reductions in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal. The agreement requires countries to make increasingly stringent five year plans – called “nationally determined contributions” – in line with keeping global warming within the range of 1.5–2°C.
The second is to ensure positive outcomes for our Pacific neighbours. These objectives are linked, given the existential threat climate change poses to many Pacific island countries if 1.5°C of warming is exceeded.
Australia will play a prominent role in negotiations around adapting to climate change, as assistant climate minister Jenny McAllister will co-chair this work. We will also be visible in efforts to lay out the ground rules for the new Loss and Damage fund, a key outcome from last year’s COP27 in Egypt.
Negotiators are also hoping for an announcement on Australia’s bid to host a joint Australia-Pacific COP meeting in 2026. This bid has already increased global scrutiny of Australia’s international engagement on climate and its domestic actions.
The elephant in the room will be fossil fuels
For many nations – especially our Pacific neighbours – the elephant in the room is Australia’s plans to keep expanding fossil fuel production. This overshadows Australia’s credibility on domestic emissions reduction and its commitment to the Pacific.
As resources minister Madeleine King spruiked in June, Australia is “one of the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas, as well as the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal and second largest exporter of thermal coal”, based on 2021 figures.
The federal government continues to approve new and expanded coal mines under the nation’s main environmental laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This is despite the contribution to climate change made by the emissions of the coal when burned.
In October 2023, the Federal Court ruled environment minister Tanya Plibersek could legally decide on coal mine proposals under the act without considering their potential climate impacts.
At COP28, observers expect to see a strong push for the phase-down or total phase-out of unabated fossil fuels, given mounting evidence that planned fossil fuel production would blow the world’s remaining carbon budget several times over.
Australia’s position on phasing down fossil fuels remains uncertain but there’s an indication of the likely policy direction in Bowen’s recent speech to the Lowy Institute.
In this speech, the minister described Australia’s position as a “traditional fossil fuel-based economy in the middle of a major transition” to a low-carbon energy system. On energy exports, he sees Australia transforming from a major fossil fuel producer to a renewable energy superpower.
As Bowen noted, our domestic decarbonisation efforts are important, but in global terms they:
[…] pale in comparison to the emissions reductions achieved if we are able to harness and export our renewable energy to help countries without our abundant renewable resources to decarbonise.
How Australia navigates this dilemma will be of great interest to our Pacific neighbours and other international onlookers at COP28.
For many, it will be the real litmus test for Australia’s ambition to be a global climate leader.
Jacqueline Peel does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Australia’s net-zero transition is struggling. Despite the government’s efforts, announced last week, to revive flagging investment in renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions from existing industry are still rising. Yet under the Paris Agreement, Australia must adopt even more ambitious targets for 2035.
But that pressure only underscores what the Australian government must do. To lift its climate game, it needs a mission-oriented, whole-of-government approach, built on what is known as a “just transition”.
The two main elements of a just transition
A just transition requires both distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice means policies that ensure a fair distribution of the economic burdens and benefits of the climate transition, along with protections for low-income people.
Procedural justice includes – but goes beyond – engaging with workers directly impacted by the decline of fossil fuel production. It means going beyond engagement with stakeholders that mainly represent incumbent industries.
A just transition would give all of Australia’s communities a chance to not only take part in discussions about the costs and benefits of different approaches to net zero, but also to have a say in designing climate policies that directly affect them.
The success of the net zero transition may depend on the government’s willingness to use the expertise of local communities in finding solutions for the lands and waters they know best.
the development of effective, nationally coherent, locally driven and delivered just transition plans within countries is dependent on effective and inclusive social dialogue.
Yet the Albanese government’s net-zero strategy has no explicit commitment to a just transition. Instead, its piecemeal strategy lacks integration and avoids tackling the essential phase-out of fossil fuels.
In May the government announced it would establish a statutory Net Zero Authority “to ensure the workers, industries and communities that have powered Australia for generations can seize the opportunities of Australia’s net zero transformation.”
The authority is expected to “help investors and companies to engage with net zero transformation opportunities,” to help regions and communities attract new investment in clean energy, and to assist workers in the transition away from emissions-intensive industries.
To design the legislation to create the Net Zero Authority and to “immediately kick-start” its work, in July the government set up an interim body known as the Net Zero Economic Agency, located in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The agency is chaired by former Labor climate change minister Greg Combet and supported by a ten-member advisory board. The mining industry and mining unions are well represented, holding three seats. However, many key stakeholders, including environmental and climate NGOs and the social welfare sector, are not represented.
At the same time, climate minister Chris Bowen has established a Net Zero Taskforce in the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water to advise on the 2035 emissions reduction target and the plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
How the work of all these bodies fits together is unclear. An overarching Net Zero National Cabinet Committee, as suggested by the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood, could provide the necessary coordination, as long as it is guided by an integrated strategy for a net zero just transition.
Yet a just transition is not mentioned on government websites relating to the interim agency and the taskforce, other than to say that they will engage with communities, industry, First Nations, and unions, with an emphasis on affected workers in regions. There is no earmarked funding, institutional innovation, or capacity building to enable inclusive dialogues across communities and society.
The Net Zero Authority is well positioned to coordinate and fund such dialogues, which are best approached from a perspective geared towards systemic change.
As the Sydney Policy Lab has found in its community “listening campaign” on the climate transition in Geelong, the authority’s transition planning will lack support if it ignores the issues (such as secure housing and affordable living) communities most worry about.
Such approaches have already met with considerable success elsewhere. In Denmark, an OECD study found social dialogues have been a significant factor in the country’s successful transition to wind power. It now accounts for a major share of Denmark’s energy output.
And in Sweden, the government’s Innovation Agency, Vinnova, has recently developed highly collaborative processes for redesigning energy, food and other systems to achieve net zero and other goals.
Far from slowing the transition, a commitment to inclusive dialogue will secure it by building the social license for change, while ensuring some measure of accountability for the injustices of the fossil fuel era.
The more inclusive the dialogue, the better the government will be able to minimise political backlash as decarbonisation accelerates.
A national net zero summit
To reach these outcomes will need significant coordination between federal, state and local governments, and across government departments.
To jumpstart this process, and building on the success of regional summits, a national summit should be convened to explore the perspectives and initiatives of a wide range of stakeholders. That means not just unions and workers (as important as they may be) but also climate and energy NGOs, local governments and historically marginalised communities.
A net zero summit would place the perspectives of policy elites and incumbent interests in dialogue with the diverse demands of citizens. It must include Indigenous communities, on whose lands much of the renewable energy infrastructure is likely to be built and critical minerals likely to be extracted.
Debate at the summit cannot be perfunctory. It must provide ample space for many voices. The goal is to discover, propose and fund a net zero transition in ways that don’t unduly privilege the needs of investors and companies, but instead champion the wisdom and solutions of local communities.
Robyn Eckersley has received research funding in the past from the Australian Research Council and she currently hold a research grant with the Research Council of Norway.
Erin Fitz-Henry does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
A real-world testing program at the Australian Automobile Association has shown that some SUVs have much better fuel consumption than others.
The program, which compares the fuel consumption and emissions of vehicles in Australian driving conditions with each vehicle’s laboratory test result, showed some SUVs used up to 13% more fuel on the road than reported in laboratory tests.