Australia is losing the new economy race, top UK climate official says

The Australian government's resistance to adopting ambitious emissions reductions targets is an economic "folly" causing the nation to fall behind in a rapidly unfolding new industrial revolution, says one of the British government's top climate officials.

Nigel Topping, who was appointed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the United Nations role of High Level Climate Action Champion for next year's international climate talks, said that coal would have little role in the global economy within 20 years, and other nations were racing ahead of Australia in developing new industries driven by ambitious emissions reductions targets.

While a big producer of coal-fired power plants, China is also the world’s largest producer of renewable energy plants, including solar farms.Credit:AP

"It's not about a green race to the top, it's an economic race, and the people who win will capture market share," said Mr Topping, whose role involves engaging the private sector with Paris Agreement goals.

He said that due to Joe Biden's US election victory, along with recent net zero announcements by China, Japan and South Korea had left Australia even more out of step with its peers, competitors and markets.

"Australia's on track to the wooden spoon in their climate change championships, but has a chance to be really a leader, particularly on the new energy system which is going to be based on renewables and hydrogen," said Mr Topping, who will address the Australasian Emissions Reduction Summit hosted by the Carbon Market Institute on Friday.

"To have less ambition than your main markets, it's just economic folly."

It’s not about a green race to the top, it's an economic race, and the people who win will capture market share.

Mr Topping said with its access to space, sunlight and Asian markets, Australia could be a renewable energy leader if "the national government could only get as excited about the resources above ground as resources underground."

"I think that there's a cognitive shift that needs to be made from coal. It is not going to have a role in the global economy in 20 years time… that's just inexorable, driven by economics and technology."

Mr Topping criticised the Australian government for adopting a technology road map to help reduce emissions, but not including ambitious emissions reduction targets.

"A road map is a plan from getting to A to B. Otherwise it's just wandering around in the wilderness, it's not a map."

Addressing the conference on Thursday, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor called on the Australian government to dump fossil fuel subsidies as part of a broader commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement, which she said was not just a political tool but a road map for survival for Pacific island nations.

The Papua New Guinean lawyer and diplomat said in her Christiana Figueres Oration at the Australasian Emission Reduction that Pacific island nations contributed little to global warming but faced an existential threat from it.

Global warming had caused sea level rise and acidification of the oceans, in turn shifting the migratory patterns of tuna and threatening fisheries as well as increasing the destruction caused by extreme weather.

"Cyclone Pam in 2015 … wiped out 64 per cent of Vanuatu's GDP overnight," she said. "In 2016, Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc in Fiji with damages totalling 31 per cent of GDP. In 2018, Cyclone Gita caused destruction in Tonga equivalent to 38 per cent of GDP. In 2020, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands was besieged by both Cyclone Harold and COVID-19 which severely impacted local people and local economies."

She welcomed the declaration of net-zero targets from Australian state governments but called for more action at the federal level, saying Pacific Islands needed urgent ambitious climate action at scale for their survival.

"To the business community, I encourage greater public and political push for an Australian national commitment to net zero emissions by 2050"

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