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Q+A: Australia urged to take lead on climate as U.N. barrier reef decision looms

by Michael Taylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 July 2021 15:32 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A school of fish swim above a staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) coral colony as it grows on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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UNESCO's upcoming decision on whether to put the Great Barrier Reef on an 'in danger' list should be a wake-up call to Australia on climate policy, says climatologist Michael Mann

By Michael Taylor

July 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Australia must recover its position as a global leader on climate action as the U.N. cultural agency considers whether to add the country's famed Great Barrier Reef to a list of World Heritage sites "in danger", a leading climatologist said.

The world's most extensive coral reef ecosystem, which lies off Australia's northeastern coast, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site 40 years ago, but has since lost over half of its coral largely due to damage caused by severe marine heatwaves.

A UNESCO panel called on Australia last month to counter the effects of climate change, warning that the prospects of the reef retaining its cherished World Heritage status had deteriorated. 

U.S. climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the UNESCO decision, expected this month, should serve as a wake-up call to Australia's government:

How valid was the U.N. criticism of Australia's climate policies and stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef?

(Prime Minister Scott) Morrison and the coalition government have refused to meaningfully address the central threat facing the Great Barrier Reef: rising carbon pollution, threatening the reef through the twin assaults of warming and ocean acidification. Instead, they've promoted false solutions, e.g. "adaptation" - a central tactic in what I call "The New Climate War".   

Do you consider Australia to be a climate laggard in the Asia-Pacific region? 

In both the region and the world. Of all the major industrial emitters, Australia has thus far made the most anaemic of pledges going into COP26 later this year.

What must Australia do differently on climate policy and are these changes likely?

Australia is the only major industrial nation that implemented carbon pricing - which reduced emissions dramatically within months - and then got rid of it when ... (former Prime Minister) Tony Abbott took power.

Australia needs to once again become the leader on action it once was, by implementing carbon pricing, providing subsidies and incentives for renewables, and blocking the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure. A "gas-led (COVID-19) recovery" (reliant on natural gas rather than renewable energy), as promised by Morrison, is fundamentally incompatible with meaningful climate action.

U.S. President Joe Biden has made climate change a key focus of both domestic and international policy. How is that affecting global efforts to curb planet-heating emissions?

One of the most important things that the Biden administration is doing right now is reasserting the leadership on climate that was abdicated with Donald Trump.

Trump's climate denial and inaction provided cover for other heads of state to slack off in their own climate commitments over the past four years. Now that Joe Biden has signalled to the rest of the world a renewed commitment on the part of the United States to lead in this battle, it is putting pressure on other nations. An ... example is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who flirts with climate change denialism and has displayed a decided lack of enthusiasm for meaningful climate action.

What more do we need to see from the United States on climate change?

On the international and diplomatic front, continued leadership and diplomacy, assistance to developing nations to help them leapfrog past fossil fuel energy and build green energy infrastructure. On the domestic front, we need congressional climate legislation that will codify the executive actions that the current administration is taking.

What about other global powers such as the European Union and China? 

We've seen bold commitments from the EU going into COP26 (U.N. climate talks due in November). We obviously need to see follow through in the form of policies that will help them meet their pledge of bringing carbon emissions down more than 50% over the next decade.

All eyes of course are on China, now the world's largest emitter. They need to commit to peaking coal immediately and decarbonizing their energy infrastructure. 

Ahead of November's COP26 talks in Scotland, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and others are saying countries must "keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal alive". Is this a feasible aim for the conference in your view?

We need to bring carbon emissions down by a factor of two within the next decade globally to limit warming below 1.5C. That is a monumental achievement, but it's doable.

Biden (and) Kerry's pledge to bring U.S. emissions down by this amount - backed up by policies that move us in that direction - puts pressure on other countries to make similarly bold pledges going into COP26. And we're seeing this from the EU, UK, Canada and others.

COVID-19 has given the world an opportunity to build back greener. Are we seeing any real evidence of this change, especially on a scale that will make a difference?

Over the past year we've seen strong movement internationally against the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and a surge in installed renewable energy infrastructure.

This has been spurred in part by the pandemic, which hurt fossil fuel companies, making them more vulnerable to pressure on governments for greener energy policy and defunding of fossil fuel projects.


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