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Australia: an emissions super-power

Australia has become the world’s biggest exporter of coal and gas

“Coal scooper” by Marcel Oosterwijt (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

The following extracts are from a report by Prof Jeremy Moss [1], forming part of the research of the Practical Justice Initiative at the University of NSW led by the author. The report forms part of the UNSW Climate Transition Series.

“ Newly released data from the Office of the Chief Economist shows Australia is increasing its contribution to global climate change. Recent government figures show that the GHG emissions from Australia’s exported fossil fuels

have increased 4.4% between 2018 to 2019 (OCE, 2020). Not only is Australia a laggard in meeting UN Paris emission reduction targets, it is now the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas. In fact, the emissions from Australia’s exported fossil fuels now exceeds Germany’s domestic emissions (Hein, Peter & Graichen, 2020).

“ Despite Federal Government claims that our national emissions have only a minimal impact on the global climate, Australia is, in fact, a major contributor to global climate change. The massive emissions that result from our fossil fuel exports are not counted in Australia’s national carbon budget under our UN climate obligations, nor does Australia take responsibility for the impact these emissions are having globally.

“ This is a situation that has to change if we are going to take serious action to halt climate change, not for Australia alone, but for all other fossil fuel exporting nations. Even large fossil fuel companies or ‘carbon majors’– at least on the surface – now count their ‘exported’ or ‘scope 3’ emissions in their greenhouse gas mitigation plans.

“ What underpins this lack of concern with the harms our fossil fuel exports cause is an outdated ‘territorial’ model of responsibility. The Australian governments, both federal and state, seem to think that responsibility stops at our border. Once Australia’s coal, oil and gas products are loaded onto ships, they are no longer Australia’s problem. Unfortunately, United Nations accounting rules under the Paris agreement currently allow this passing on of the responsibility for exported emissions to continue.

“ Yet this is not how Australia treats other exports. What happens to live sheep, medical waste, plastics and uranium are all rightly seen as at least partly our responsibility. It is the whole chain of actions that are relevant to accepting responsibility for any export- ed product that must be considered, not just what happens at the users’ end.

“ The reason that countries such as Australia and its companies should take responsibility for our exported emissions is ultimately a moral one. The big exporters, who are reaping enormous profits from the sale of coal, oil and gas, are at least as responsible for these emissions as those actually burning the fuels. Without the investment in infra-structure and supply of these fuels, they would not be consumed.

“ Australia’s fossil fuel exports really do have a massive impact on rising global emissions and it’s time to recognise and account for that impact as part of the global climate change crisis and how it’s addressed. “


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