Australia is pushing to host a Cop meeting – if successful it would be forced to ramp up climate action
If the Albanese government has its way, in two years’ time up to 20,000 people – political leaders, diplomats, lobbyists, activists and professional greenwashers – will spend a fortnight in Sydney (or maybe Brisbane or Melbourne) in what will inevitably be described as an attempt to save the planet.
Labor promised before the election that if it won power it would bid to host a Cop (a conference of the parties to the United Nations framework convention on climate change), hopefully in partnership with Pacific island neighbours.
Climate Cops have been a year-end fixture on the global calendar since 1995. Though often derided, sometimes with justification, it is the process that led to the 2015 Paris agreement, which remains the most significant commitment to tackle the climate crisis and prompted an escalation in both commitments and action (although nothing like enough, yet).
As laid out in detail in the Guardian podcast series Australia v The Climate, this country has an inglorious history as a global citizen on climate change. With a few notable exceptions, it has adopted positions that undermined and disrupted efforts to accelerate action, prioritising instead the short-term interests of its fossil fuel industries.
It reached its nadir under the Morrison government, which pulled out of the Green Climate Fund, obstructed an agreement at the 2019 conference in Madrid because it demanded the right to use “carryover credits” from the Kyoto protocol, and refused international exhortations to join other countries in boosting its 2030 emissions target before last year’s summit in Scotland. It then signed up to a Glasgow pact that promised countries would consider lifting emissions targets only to immediately announce it would do no such thing.
The switch from this obstructionism to vying to host a Cop in Australia for the first time is a full 180-degree pivot. There is no guarantee that Labor will succeed, but its campaign over the next few months is worth watching. If successful, it could become one of the most significant things to happen to advance climate action in the country.
The push to host the meeting is under way. Over the next week, the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, and the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, will head to the US for the annual climate week and the UN general assembly in New York. Bowen will also attend a ministerial meeting at a global clean energy action forum in Philadelphia. Hosting a summit will not be the primary focus, but discussions have begun over who will host Cop29 in 2024, which Bowen nominated as the government’s goal.
There are several hurdles to clear for Australia to even be in that race. Cop hosting duties are decided on a rotational basis between five groupings. Australia is part of a group called Western European and Other States Group (Weog). It will need to first win support within this collection. It is in competition with Germany, represented by a climate minister from the German Greens, and Switzerland.
If it is successful within its own group, the Albanese government will then face another challenge. The Weog is not due to host a Cop until 2026. Eastern Europe has the chair in 2024 and would need to agree to give it up.
This is not impossible. Poland has hosted the past three eastern Europe Cops – in 2008, 2013 and 2018 – and there is a view it may not be a great idea to go back again, especially while Russia is attacking Ukraine next door. There is a scenario under which a deal could be struck that involved Australia and Germany taking on the 2024 and 2026 Cops – not necessarily in that order – but first eastern Europe would have to yield its turn.
A decision on 2024 should become clearer by the time climate change ministers head to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt for Cop27 in November.
The Egyptian Cop will not have the hubbub of Glasgow. More than 100 national leaders turned up last year, having promised to boost commitments on the five-year anniversary of the Paris agreement (the meeting was delayed from 2020 due to Covid-19). As usual, results at the summit itself were mixed, but the lead-up was a qualified success. Several major emitters – including the US, China, the EU, Japan and India – pledged to do more.
By comparison, this year will be what Richie Merzian, a former climate diplomat now with the Australia Institute, calls an “implementation Cop”. The decisions will be more technical than political. He expects maybe 12 national leaders from the host region to turn up. But countries will mostly be represented at the ministerial level. While some news stories last week compared Anthony Albanese’s almost-certain nonattendance in Sharm El Sheikh with pressure on Scott Morrison to attend Cop26 last year, in reality, the two events are quite different.
The Albanese government is likely to be warmly received at Cop27 for simply not being the Morrison government. It has increased the national 2030 emissions reduction target, fulfilling a pledge made in the Glasgow pact. Its promise still trails most other developed countries, but improvement brings kudos, even if from a subterranean starting point. It may be one of the few bright spots in Sharm El Sheikh, given the impact of Russia’s military aggression, a cost-of-living crisis and China recently breaking off a climate dialogue with the US.
But if the Albanese government wins the right to host a Cop with Pacific partners the focus will shift. There is likely to be increased scrutiny from overseas and at home on whether it is living up to its rhetoric – and on the community and business opportunities of doing more faster.
Stronger climate ambition hasn’t always been a prerequisite for hosting a Cop – Poland remains pro-coal and has hosted it three times – but the pressure on Australia will be greater. It will be representing a group of wealthy countries significantly responsible for the problem while asking for support from leaders across a region where the impacts are most severe.
Living up to this would mean rejoining the Green Climate Fund, the United Nation’s US$10 billion financing arm to help developing countries. It will also be expected to show it takes seriously the push by the most vulnerable nations for the rich to agree to a mechanism to pay for the loss and damage they suffer.
The biggest focus is likely to be on its ambition to cut emissions. It will need to set an increased 2035 emissions reduction target ahead of the 2025 deadline for that goal.
And it will face growing calls from the Pacific and elsewhere for it to abandon its illogical position that it can take climate change seriously while allowing substantial new coal and gas developments. Two former presidents from the region, Kiribati’s Anote Tong and Palau’s Tommy Remengesau Jr, visited Canberra last week in part to make this case.
Australia would be focusing on all this just before or shortly after the next federal election. It means the country’s always-promised big climate election may still be to come.