The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia ranks last on climate action in U.N. report

A bucket-wheel reclaimer beside a pile of coal at the Port of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, on Oct. 12, 2020. (David Gray/Bloomberg News)
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In a United Nations report released this week to assess progress toward a range of international sustainable-development goals, Australia came in last on action in response to climate change, among more than 170 U.N. members analyzed.

The nation has long relied on coal-fired power and has consistently been one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita. This year, Australia ranked among the top three countries for exported greenhouse gas emissions per capita and among the top 10 nations for per capita fossil fuel use, according to U.N. data. It ranked second-worst for carbon pricing scores, between first-ranking Chile and the United States.

Climate action — defined by the United Nations as “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” — is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the core of the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has been adopted by all U.N. member states. The goals include clean water and sanitation, zero hunger, quality education, and gender equality. Australia as a nation overall ranked 35th in its progress to meet all the Sustainable Development Goals.

The ranking is based on four indicators: per capita emissions from fossil fuel combustion, per capita CO2 emissions embodied in imports, per capita CO2 emissions embodied in exports and carbon pricing score.

Though limited, the ranking comes at a time of anxiety about the future of climate action in Australia.

Sworn in on June 22, Australia’s new deputy prime minister, described as a “climate change skeptic” by Reuters, is expected to make even the nation’s already loose commitment to net zero emissions more difficult. Barnaby Joyce, who served as deputy prime minister from 2016 to 2018 before resigning after an extramarital-affair scandal, was seated after a leadership revolt in the coalition government’s minor party.

Joyce has previously said he was willing to vote against policies that would cause job loss because of higher climate standards. He joins Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom Australians have rebuked for his conservative environmental policies.

Australia stopped short in April of committing to net zero emissions. Instead, Morrison said that Australia wants to achieve net zero emissions as soon as possible — “preferably” by 2050, he said.

Even this seemingly small concession was seen by some in Australia as a major step forward. Morrison is famous for waving a lump of coal before Parliament in 2017, when he was still a lawmaker.

“This is coal. This is coal. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! Won’t hurt you. Won’t hurt you,” Morrison said, adding that “affordable energy is what Australian businesses need to remain competitive.”

In “stark contrast” to federal policy, Donna Green, a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said that some Australian states have paved their own clean-energy path, heavily investing in “the inevitable transition to a renewable-energy future.”

She named, for example, the upcoming construction of the world’s largest battery for energy storage in New South Wales. In November, New South Wales passed an energy bill that included plans to build 12 gigawatts of clean energy — a capacity that compares to the nation’s entire existing large-scale renewable-energy capacity, the Guardian reported, adding that the state move further isolates the federal government on fossil fuels.

Climate change activists took to Twitter to criticize the U.N. ranking.

For the first time since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the global average for the SDG index score decreased over the course of the year. This result was driven by the pandemic, which increased poverty rates and unemployment in a “major setback” for sustainable development generally.