Australian government seen globally as climate ‘denialist’, UN summit observers say

Experts at the meeting say Australia is seen as ‘engaging in greenwashing’ and using accounting tricks to meet targets.

Scott Morrison is increasingly seen as running a “denialist government” that is not serious about finding a global climate solution and uses “greenwash” to meet its emissions commitments, analysts and former diplomats say.

Australian observers in New York said Morrison’s failure to attend a UN climate action summit on Monday despite being in the US, and his apparent rejection of the need for Australia to do more to address its rising greenhouse gas emissions, eroded goodwill for the country on the issue.

While representatives from about 60 nations spoke at the summit, Morrison gave a keynote speech at the Chicago Institute for Global Affairs in which he challenged China to do more heavy lifting on climate change and suggested it should be treated as a “newly developed” economy rather than a developing one.

Bill Hare, the chief executive and senior scientist of Climate Analytics and a longtime adviser to countries at climate talks, said the UN summit had been “very disappointing” as most larger polluters, including Australia, had failed to meet the secretary general Antonio Guterres’ call to increase commitments, leaving ambitious strides to smaller nations.

He said country representatives at the summit were dismissive of Australia’s intentions.

“Diplomatic officials from countries that I speak with see Australia as a denialist government,” he said. “It’s just accepted that’s what it is. It is seen as doing its own promotion of coal and natural gas against the science.”

Hare said Morrison’s suggestion China should be doing more on climate, and be treated similarly to the most developed countries, while Australia’s emissions continued to increase year-on-year was a “ridiculous fake argument”.

He said China, the world’s most populous country and biggest annual polluter, was not doing anywhere near enough to tackle the crisis, but was doing more than Australia on many measures. It had national policies in a number of areas – boosting renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and efficiency in industry – where Australia did not.

“Is that having enough of an effect in China? No. But will China peak its emissions by the end of the 2020s? Yes,” Hare said.

“Will Australia? There is no evidence that Australia will peak its emissions as far as I’ve seen in any projections that have been published.”

A report backed by the world’s major climate science bodies released on the eve of the summit found current plans would lead to a rise in average global temperatures of between 2.9C and 3.4C by 2100, a shift likely to bring catastrophic change across the globe.


Richie Merzian, a former climate diplomat who now works at progressive thinktank the Australian Institute, said Australia was seen by other countries as denying the severity of the problem and in engaging in “greenwashing” by using accounting tricks to meet targets while actual emissions increased.

While leaders from other countries did not attend – notably Japan, Brazil and South Africa, while Donald Trump made a surprise passing appearance – Merzian said Morrison’s absence was seen as condescending as he was nearby. “If prime minister Morrison thinks he has skipped this meeting and not damaged his relationship with the Pacific, he’s in denial,” Merzian said.

With Morrison absent, having not being invited to speak, Australia’s delegation was instead led by the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, and the Australian ambassador for the environment, Patrick Suckling.

Kevin Rudd: Australia is ‘free-riding’

The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told the ABC Morrison’s failure to attend sent a message to corporate Australia it was not serious about climate action. National emissions have increased each year since the carbon pricing scheme was abolished in 2014.

“When you have a prime minister of the country not stepping up to the plate, addressing the world’s forum, and indicating what Australia’s future carbon reduction commitments will be, it sends a very clear message to the Australian domestic community and the international community that the Australian government is just not serious,” Rudd said.

“We are free-riding on the rest of the world. I believe it’s unacceptable.”

Asked about criticism thrown at the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who gave an impassioned address at the summit, Rudd said she represented “the anger of that generation and does so effectively”.

“It might insult a whole lot of middle-aged white guys, because it is not the way that we would talk, or we think that it is inappropriate for a young girl to speak that way, but when I speak to young people around the world, whether it is in China, here in the United States or back home in Australia, frankly there is a rising rage that our generation has failed to step up to the plate,” he said.

Dean Bialek, a former Australian diplomat to the UN, now working with the Mission 2020 campaign led by ex-UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, said Australia was increasingly perceived as a “self-interested laggard”, pointing to the Morrison government’s support for new coalmines as the mainstream science community and the UN secretary general called for thermal coal to be rapidly phased out.

He said Australia was also seen as engaging in double-speak as it claimed to be meeting its international commitments while planning to use “carryover credits” from the Kyoto protocol that did not represent new emission cuts and were not referred to in the Paris agreement.

Australia was also ignoring a key part of the Paris deal: that the targets volunteered in France, in Australia’s case a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2030, were not enough and would be reviewed and ramped up.

“Not only has Australia started with a very weak target but it is now saying it is not planning to increase that very weak target next year,” Bialek said. “There seems to be complete amnesia about this big commitment made in Paris.”

Under questioning in the US, Morrison ducked questions about when Australia would develop an emissions reduction strategy for 2050, despite signing on at the Pacific Islands Forum to a communique pledging to develop one next year.

He said his government would meet the 2030 commitments made at the election. Asked what the plan beyond that was, Morrison said: “We are making our commitments to 2030, that’s what we are doing. We keep setting the targets and we keep meeting them.”


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