The United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai has played out like a dystopian satire. Hosted by a petrostate, the official facilitator of the proceedings, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the chief executive of the United Arab Emirates' state oil company - if you scripted it, it wouldn't be believable.
Just before summit began, it was revealed that Sultan Al Jaber had plans to use the world's biggest climate event to strike oil deals with world leaders who were attending. Earlier this week, footage surfaced of the Sultan claiming there was no science supporting the need for a fossil fuel phase out and the UAE has continued to drive an agenda of distractions and low ambition throughout the proceedings.
The events have rightly sparked outrage among observers and eyerolls from those who could see the inevitable consequences of putting a petrostate in charge of the henhouse. However, there is another mega fossil fuel producer eagerly lining up behind the UAE to put up its hand to host the COP in 2026: Australia.
We don't think of ourselves as a petrostate, but Australia is a bigger fossil fuel exporter than the United Arab Emirates, by far. We are the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world. The parallels between our two countries are striking, raising red flags and serious questions about whether Australians and the international community should use COP28 as a cautionary tale for what might lie in store if Australia is successful in its bid to host COP31.
The UAE is expanding its fossil fuel operations including oil, gas, coal, and petrochemicals, with plans for new oil and gas production by 2050. Australia is too, with Resources Minister Madeleine King saying that Australia's gas and coal will be "needed for decades". It appears that Sultan Al Jaber and Australia's Minister for Resources are on a unity ticket when it comes to parroting fossil fuel industry talking points.
Australia's Resources and Major Energy Projects list describes over 100 new gas and coal projects as "under development". If all these projects proceed, research by the Australia Institute shows they would add a further 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere every year - roughly the equivalent emissions of the entire Russian Federation, the world's fourth-largest polluter.
Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen's recent announcement of a massive boost to clean energy investment is both welcome and necessary to meet our 2030 target. Like Australia, the UAE has committed to net zero by 2050; neither government makes reference to the role of fossil fuels or their vast fossil fuel exports in their plans. Both countries play a pea and thimble trick by talking up ambitious plans to build renewable energy domestically and for export - neither country indicates that this is in addition to fossil fuels, not instead of fossil fuels.
Both countries also heavily emphasise climate finance, adaptation and fanciful technological solutions to climate change (such as the enduring failure carbon capture and storage), as a way to distract from the fact that they're not actually doing anything to reduce emissions or fossil fuels.
Unlike the promise of technocratic solutions such as CCS and direct air capture (perpetually "just 10 years away"), offsets are being used by big polluters to greenwash their fossil fuel use and production right now. A carbon offset developer set up by a member of the UAE royal family has convinced governments in Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe to sell off vast areas of forest with the likely intention of "offsetting" the UAE's oil and gas production. Meanwhile, in Australia anywhere from 100,000 to a million "government-certified carbon offsets" are being generated every couple of weeks, available to polluters to carry on business as usual. The Australian government is also setting up an Indo-Pacific Carbon Offsets framework in an apparent attempt to ensure a supply of offsets to our fossil fuel customers.
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While the UAE is using this COP to strike oil deals, Australia is an old pro at undermining international negotiations. We've been doing it for decades, we're just more subtle about it. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia negotiated an increase in emissions and an inclusion in international accounting that has made our progress on reducing emissions appear far better than it actually is in reality. In separate international negotiations this year, Australia blocked a move proposed by Pacific countries to decarbonise the shipping industry and argued that Australia has no historical responsibility for our contribution to climate change. So much for supporting our Pacific neighbours.
When it comes to civil society, the Emirati government's legislation and practices impose severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. While Australia's anti-protest laws have become more draconian and punitive. South Australia "rushed through anti-protest laws less than a day after a rally outside the annual oil and gas conference in Adelaide briefly closed traffic". The 2023 CIVICUS Monitor global report found civic space in Australia remains "narrowed" thanks to the prosecution of whistleblowers in Australia, the arrest of climate protesters, excessive use of force by police against protesters, and the intimidation of journalists. Three climate protestors were arrested and charged after the ABC handed over its footage to police.
Given the similarities between the fossil fuel ambitions of Australia and the UAE, what are the chances Australia would drive an agenda of ambition among those countries buying our fossil fuels at COP31? About a snowball's chance in a heatwave. Especially when the Australian government was recently at pains to assure the Japanese government it will continue to be a "reliable" supplier of gas far into the future.
Australia's bid to co-host a COP with Pacific nations does add an additional layer of accountability, elevating the collective power, voice and moral authority of small island developing states. But if there's one thing this petrostate-hosted COP28 has made abundantly clear, it's that fossil fuels are the problem, not "part of the solution". Under global scrutiny, Australia may be unable to get away with its usual greenwash.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director for the Australia Institute and a regular columnist for The Canberra Times.