The transition out of coal and fossil fuels needs to happen as "fast as possible", one of Australia's chief negotiators for the upcoming UN climate summit has said.
But Australia's Ambassador for the Environment Jamie Isbister says the shift hinges on the development of clean technologies such a renewables and hydrogen, which are key to helping countries including India, Vietnam and Bangladesh wean themselves off coal.
While Mr Isbister's comments in an online Q&A with two Canberra college students were firmly in line with the government's technology-centric position on tackling climate change, he was far more open and candid than a public servant usually would be when discussing the politically charged topic.
Mr Isbister acknowledged Australia's climate wars had probably been responsible for toppling multiple prime ministers in the past decade.
He also revealed that Pacific nations were concerned about travelling to Glasgow for the UN climate summit amid the coronavirus pandemic, prompting the Morrison government to explore options to charter flights and quarantine foreign officials in Australia.
He said the UK, which was hosting the event, had insisted the summit be conducted in person, in part because a number of countries had been "very clear" that they wouldn't sign on to agreements if it wasn't.
Mr Isbister will travel to the Glasgow late October as part of Australia's delegation to the highly anticipated UN summit, which is being used to encourage countries to lift their climate action ambitions in the hope of keeping the Paris temperate targets within reach.
The Morrison government is facing intensifying domestic and international pressure over its targets, which are far lower than what its allies the US and UK have pledged.
The Coalition has stuck with its Abbott-era target to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, and it remains only its preference to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week said Australia would announce further detail on its plans to reach net zero before the Glasgow summit, but refused to elaborate.
Under questioning from two college students in a virtual event on the weekend, Mr Isbister said he understood the "concern and frustration" that Australia wasn't setting more ambitious targets.
MORE CLIMATE NEWS
But he suggested that amid the "politicised" and "polarised" climate debate, it was easy to lose sight of Australia's record on emissions reduction, in comparison to countries such as Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
He said the "biggest risk" in global climate negotiations was agreeing to targets and then failing to meet them.
"If you agree to something and then you don't deliver on it, then the actual trust and confidence starts breaking down," he said.
The online forum, which was part of Holy Cross Anglican and St Margaret's Uniting Church's Sustaining Our Future Festival, was held after federal environment minister Sussan Ley last week approved an extension of Whitehaven Coal's Vickery mine in northern NSW.
The decision drew immediate criticism from environmental groups, who said it was at odds with a federal court ruling which found Ms Ley had a duty of care to protect children from harm caused by climate change.
Asked about Ms Ley's decision, Mr Isbister said there was an acknowledgment that we "need to transition out of coal and fossil fuels as quickly as possible ... and transition to a clean energy future as fast as it can be done".
He suggested the pace and nature of the transition would depend on developing nations across Asia and the subcontinent which relied on imported coal to power their countries.
If Australia abruptly stopped exporting coal, he said those countries would source it from elsewhere while also seeing their "economic opportunities ... switched off".
In a major development this week, China's president Xi Jinping used a speech to the UN General Assembly to announce his country would stop building coal-fired power plants overseas.
Mr Isbister said the transition hinged on developing and incentivising investment in clean technologies such as hydrogen and renewables. He said once hydrogen reached a price of $2 per kilogram - which is the Morrison government's ambition - it could replace "all fossil fuel use".
"Hydrogen can be a massive replacement for all coal-fired power stations, the transport sector, stationary energy, cement production - you can produce steel," he said.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor on Monday announced a further $150 million to help build new "clean" hydrogen hubs in regional Australia.
Mr Isbister told the forum there was no longer debate in his circles about the need to reach net zero emissions, with discussion focused on the policies needed to make it happen.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: