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Bushfires Reap What Australia’s Carbon Exports Have Sown

David Fickling
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Bushfires Reap What Australia’s Carbon Exports Have Sown

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Australia isn’t what the world thought it was.

A country that markets itself on the basis of its wide-open blue skies, azure waters and huggable wildlife is suddenly presenting a different face: Tourists in holiday towns, huddled on beaches to get away from the impending fire front; cities choked by orange smoke and falling ash; kangaroos and koalas incinerated as they try to flee paddocks and woodlands. 

If there was any doubt that this antipodean paradise is being lost, even the town of Eden was evacuated this week with the approach of an inferno reminiscent of the fires of hell.

It’s a rude dose of reality for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a former tourism-promotion bureaucrat whose lackadaisical, image-obsessed initial response to the fires has caused him to be lampooned on social media as #scottyfrommarketing. 

And yet a generation before Morrison came on the scene, Australia was already lying to itself and the world about its role in the climate change that has fueled this disaster. If any goodness can sprout from the devastation of these fires, it will start with a more honest reckoning about how successive governments have sold off Australia’s future for a handful of coal.

The conventional view is the one Morrison put to the United Nations last September. “Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions,” he told the General Assembly. “Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.”

That statement relies on a rubbery definition of “responsible.” While Australia’s domestic emissions are in line with Morrison’s figures, exports are another matter. This country is the world’s biggest net fossil fuel exporter after Russia and Saudi Arabia, vying with Indonesia as the No. 1 supplier of coal and with Qatar as the largest shipper of liquefied natural gas.

The roughly 1.2 billion metric tons of emissions from coal and petroleum exports in the year through June were almost three times greater than the total discharged at home, and more than the domestic emissions of any nation bar China, the U.S., India, Russia and Japan. Factor that in, and a country with 0.3% of the world’s population is responsible for some 5% of its carbon emissions.

Over the decade through 2017, most developed countries saw domestic emissions decline, and even China restricted growth to a 2.5% rate. Australia’s exported emissions grew at a rate of 4.5% a year, driven by a boom in coal and LNG extraction. 

It’s hard to explain to outsiders quite how little this features in the country’s domestic debate. Thanks to the magic of international carbon accounting, fossil fuel exports are conventionally counted toward destination countries, rather than the place where they were extracted.

This methodological quirk is convenient for a country that doesn’t want to look like a climate pariah — but it’s helped to obscure the way Australia has been profiting from undermining global climate targets for a generation. As the residents of burned-out towns and owners of incinerated livestock will know, the warming that results is the same whether the carbon is burned in Australia, or overseas.

What would a more honest policy look like?

While Australia has until recently played a constructive role at multilateral climate forums, its most active channel of bilateral trade diplomacy is almost certainly promoting coal exports around Asia. One reason that Morrison was holidaying in Hawaii when the bushfires turned into a full-blown crisis is that he was taking a break before scheduled trips this month to Japan and India, where an agenda including “broader trade discussions” would likely have focused heavily on hawking Australian coal. (The black stuff accounts for about half of all Australia’s exports to Japan, and three-quarters of the total to India.)

It seems unlikely that even the current bushfire crisis can shock Canberra’s politicians into changing their approach. If it did, though, Australia would get together with its major customers in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and India — all governments with real if wavering commitments to limiting or reducing emissions — and plan out an orderly transition away from fossil fuels.

That process will no doubt be complex and painful. But the loss of landscapes and livelihoods Australia is seeing is already complex and painful, and it's just a foretaste of what is to come. With the two degrees or more of warming that the planet is heading toward, Australia’s grain belts will be tipped closer to desert, the Great Barrier Reef will become a bleached boneyard, and fires in holiday towns like those seen these past few months will become routine.

This disaster has been a fall from grace for Australia. Let’s hope that redemption is still within reach.

To contact the author of this story: David Fickling at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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