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It was an avoidable mistake for Anthony Albanese not to attend Cop27 | Adam Morton

It lasted only three hours, but Joe Biden’s visit to Egypt on Friday afternoon underlined that it was a mistake for Anthony Albanese not to attend the annual UN climate conference known as Cop27.

Not a disastrous mistake, but an avoidable one, and a lost opportunity. The prime minister has turned down a chance to argue in front of more than 110 other leaders that his still-new government is serious about pushing for greater action – that, in the words of the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, “we’re back” after years as a global laggard. Momentum matters on climate, and Albanese won’t get another chance to make an urgent first impression.

The conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, a narrow tourist strip between the Red Sea and the Sinai peninsula desert, has quite a different hue to the politically heavy Cop26 meeting in Glasgow last year. Then, national leaders were expected to turn up with strengthened commitments for 2030 that reflected the scale of the problem. Many did pledge to do more, but not enough. Others, notably Scott Morrison, agreed to go only after sustained international and domestic pressure, and didn’t bother with a new short-term pledge.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Albanese’s non-attendance this year is not in the same category. This is meant to be an “implementation Cop”, focused on bedding down details of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and there was no expectation until a few weeks ago that national leaders would turn up at all. Instead, ministers including Bowen would arrive for the second week to thrash out the details.

That changed as the Egyptian hosts belatedly asked leaders to come for two days at the start of the conference to reflect on the need for accelerated action. This is a good thing – the urgency of the problem, illustrated by the rise of catastrophic extreme weather events, should not allow for down years in international attention.

Many leaders agreed to the request, leaving Albanese – who opted to attend parliament ahead of a week of international meetings in south-east Asia – in a minority of those who didn’t come. It was an odd choice, given Australia is hoping to co-host a UN climate summit in four years’ time.

Does his absence matter? In the practical terms of what is agreed at these fortnight-long talks, probably not. Pat Conroy, the minister for international development and the Pacific, deputised in the first couple of days, and Bowen is an experienced senior minister and more than capable of making Australia’s case. As Bowen told Katharine Murphy in her Saturday podcast, his main messages this week will be that the days of the country trying to stymie the global effort are over, and it can make a difference as a part of a progressive coalition of countries.

But Albanese missed a trick not coming to say this himself, and indicating what more Australia will do, particularly on finance. He leads one of two countries that have swung back in favour of climate action after elections in the past year. The other is Brazil, and its president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is expected in Egypt this week. Albanese’s attendance at the world’s most significant climate forum would have sent a clear message to the global community and climate-motivated voters at home. It would also have been a chance to hear directly about what more is needed.

It is unclear yet whether Bowen will arrive with the authority to add to Australia’s pledges, particularly in terms of financial support, an area in which it has fallen well short of what is needed. A Carbon Brief analysis last week calculated it is contributing only 38% of its fair share, based on its portion of historic emissions.

The minister can expect questions about what the change in government in Australia really means for climate action. Here are some of the issues he is likely to face.

Loss and damage

This is the big one at Cop27, after developed countries agreed to put it on the agenda for the first time. It is one of the most vexed questions at climate talks: as catastrophes become more common, and have a compounding effect on the lives and livelihoods of people in the developing world, what will the countries that caused the problem do to bear the cost so developing countries are not funnelling their entire GDP into survival measures?

The money required will be vast – along with the climate finance needed to help less-developed countries cut emissions, about US$2tr a year by 2030, according to an assessment by Lord Nicholas Stern, a British climate economist.

Agreement on what a workable mechanism could look like is not expected this week, but progress, and what ministers say, will matter. Loss and damage was noticeably absent from the new pledges in Biden’s speech, though his climate envoy, John Kerry, has said the country is “totally supportive” and “100% ready” to discuss the issue in detail.

In Australia, the opposition took the ethical and economic low road last week when Peter Dutton asked Albanese to guarantee that Australia – one of the world’s 15 biggest annual emitters and an even bigger contributor to the global fossil fuel trade – would not compensate other countries for escalating climate disasters. Bowen has stressed the government believes “it’s time to have this conversation” about loss and damage, but offered nothing specific. It is an issue that will keep coming this week.

Explaining global action pledges

In recent weeks, the Albanese government has joined a pledge to reduce global methane emissions – released during fossil fuel extraction, and by burping livestock – by 30% in the decade to 2030. It also became a member of a forests and climate leadership partnership, which aims to build on an earlier commitment to end global deforestation over the same timeframe.

Australian mines release a significant amount of methane – according to some evidence, significantly more than is reflected in its national emissions accounts. The country also continues to fell old-growth and primary forest for logging and agricultural expansion. Bowen is expected to say more about just what these commitments mean.

Carbon offsets

A goal at Cop27 is to implement “article 6” of the Paris agreement, which sets out rules governing carbon markets and the use of offsets. Offsets allow governments and businesses to pay for emissions reduction elsewhere – through the planting and growth of trees, for example – and claim them as their own cuts.

A new UN report argues they are a form of greenwashing if fossil fuel companies can use them in lieu of cutting their own emissions. It recommends rules that would improve the integrity of offset, and require that they be used in addition to absolute cuts consistent with keeping heating to 1.5C, not instead of them.

This is not a position shared by the Australian government, or many of the country’s biggest polluters. Both want lots of credits available as the country aims to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Fossil fuels

Australia was one of the few countries to meaningfully increase its international commitment – known as a nationally determined contribution, or NDC – this year. Its new 2030 emissions target (a 43% cut compared with 2005) isn’t as much as the climate science Paris agreement requires, but the government says it is all the country is prepared to offer until it announces a 2035 target, presumably before the next election.

Attention is more likely to swing to the main driver of the problem. Can the country really continue to dig up more fossil fuels while claiming to be serious about addressing the climate crisis?

Plenty of people don’t think so. Some of them are within the government. Expect the issue to rear its head again this week.


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