Our Prime Minister believes in miracles - which is lucky, because he might need one to get himself out of the political mess the Coalition has made of climate policy in Australia.
Any day now, it is expected the Morrison government will make a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. The PM is probably hoping such an announcement will distract from the increasingly ludicrous ransom demands of the Nationals and restore some of Australia's climate credibility on the international stage. But any net zero target Morrison announces will be a fraud if Australia's gas, oil and coal industries are allowed to keep expanding.
The Australia Institute's annual Climate of the Nation report shows a majority of the public clearly supports a phasing out of fossil fuels. Eight in 10 (82 per cent) of Australians support a phasing out of coal-fired power stations, two-thirds (66 per cent) think the government should stop new coal mines, and 60 per cent support Australia following the IEA pathway to stop approving new gas, coal and oil projects. A clear majority support a net zero target, and more than half support a more ambitious 2030 target. That's where the Australian public, including regional Australia, and the rest of the world is at - but the government remains bogged down in the past.
Let's be clear, the Coalition is planning to expand Australia's fossil fuel industry. The "plan" is to make the problem worse. Australia is already the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world - behind Saudi Arabia and Russia - and we are planning to double coal exports and open new gas fields. That's what we're doing to increase emissions. But what are doing to reduce them? Not much.
The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, rejected the Business Council of Australia's call to tighten up the so-called safeguard mechanism that forces big polluters to change their behaviour, effectively dubbing his own policy a "carbon tax". Instead, he told The Australian Financial Review that the plan is to use offsets to support gas and coal.
There are a couple of problems with relying on offsets to meet emissions reduction targets. Firstly, no amount of offsets can really substitute for genuine emissions reduction - just like smoking filtered cigarettes is no substitute for quitting smoking altogether. Secondly, the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation recently released research showing that one in five carbon credits under Australia's main climate policy are "junk" cuts - credits given for land that would never have been cleared in the first place.
As the Glasgow COP26 Climate Change Conference approaches, the rest of the world has moved quickly to announce much more ambitious 2030 targets. Meanwhile, the Liberal and Nationals in government have had five years to come up with a plan to achieve net zero, and still can't even agree on the bare minimum target the rest of the world signed up to years ago.
The Nationals' Senate leader, Senator Bridget McKenzie, was still canvassing ideas from her colleagues as cabinet was supposed to be passing the plan. Nevertheless, her colleagues admirably rose to the challenge and managed to take Australia's climate debate to new heights of ridiculousness.
Queensland senator Matt Canavan pronounced that every Australian should be willing to pay higher interest rates on their mortgage to send a message to banks that have stopped lending to dud fossil fuel projects. Once the last resort of Millennials seeking to buy their first home, now Canavan wants "the bank of Mum and Dad" to finance a coal mine buyers' scheme. NSW Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean perhaps summed it up best with his tweet: "Great, so now [Canavan] is proposing a great big new tax on the Australian dream where every Australian home owner and small business pays more on their mortgage to fund his climate denialism."
Things truly hit peak ridiculous when Resources Minister Keith Pitt demanded a $250 billion loan and insurance facility for the fossil fuel sector in return for agreeing to a net zero target. Is it just an ambit claim, designed to make some smaller sweetheart subsidy - say, $25 billion - seem reasonable by comparison? Or is Keith Pitt seriously suggesting Australia's taxpayers singlehandedly underwrite the financing and insurance of the global coal industry, after China, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea, plus the European Union, all announced they will stop financing coal projects overseas?
To be fair, Pitt's ransom demand was rightly scorned by several Liberals and seemed dead on arrival, while Canavan's outlandish suggestion was politely ignored like a fart in a lift. But it illustrates just how far from reality the Australian climate debate has strayed.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that reality is starting to impinge on the politics. US President Joe Biden announced lease sales for 30GW of offshore wind projects around the US coastline, while Angus Taylor has only just introduced a bill to set up a regulatory framework for Australia's offshore wind market, which has the capacity to power our domestic needs many times over. The head of Volkswagen was on the radio describing how Australia's weak fuel efficiency standards has not only made Australia a dumping ground for old inefficient gas-guzzlers, but we can't even access newer, safer cars, because Australian petrol is too dirty to work in new car engines. Most car manufacturers are going all-electric, while Australia still has fuel standards from the '90s. Though Climate of the Nation shows two-thirds of Australians would consider buying one when they next replace their car, thanks to the Coalition dragging its heels, Australians can't even access most electric vehicles on the market.
The rest of the world is moving to decarbonise, global finance won't touch fossil fuels with a 10-foot pole, and the Australian public wants to transition to renewable energy. We don't need a miracle to begin seriously reducing Australia's emissions - but we do need a plan that isn't a climate fraud.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director at the Australia Institute and a regular columnist. Twitter: @ebony_bennett