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When It Comes To Coal, Australia Is Showing The World We're Going 'Back To Black'

In the Polish city of Katowice, towers of coal run alongside the UN Climate Conference (COP24) centre.

Thousands of COP24 delegates stream past the trade show promoting ‘Black to Green’, which showcases coal curios such as earrings and soap (although why anyone would want to wash with coal soap is beyond me), on their way to negotiate coal’s very demise --  by teasing out the rules necessary to implement the mission of the Paris Agreement to transition to a zero-emission world by 2050.

Remember the Paris Agreement?

The landmark climate treaty agreed to by 195 world leaders in 2015 and ratified the following year at breakneck speed.

Soap in a shape of a coal cob on display at COP 24. (Image: Getty)

It wasn’t that long ago that Australia was represented at COP by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop -- veritable climate champions compared to the current mob. Australia was co-chair of the UN centrepiece Green Climate Fund and, as a nation, Australia was committed to tackling energy sector emissions by encouraging renewables.

Since then, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cut ties with the Green Climate Fund, Energy Minister Angus Taylor is rushing to use taxpayer dollars to back antiquated coal fired power stations and Environment Minister Melissa Price takes issue with the IPCC’s latest climate science report.

But the change in attitude and ambition is exemplified in the change in company Australia keeps.

At COP24, Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment took the stage with Trump appointees to promote the use of so-called ‘low emission’ fossil fuels.

The Australian diplomat was the only non-US delegate to sign-up to the sideshow -- which even American news agencies noticed.

Protesters interrupted Trump’s energy and climate adviser, Wells Griffith, after he said the US will not reject coal mining or fossil fuel use.  Australia’s ambassador for the environment Patrick Suckling joined Griffith on the panel. (Image: Getty Images)

While the latest cohort of Australian Government Ministers seem to have gone ‘back to black’, Australians themselves have become even more committed to climate action.

The Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2018 report shows 70 percent of Australians want the Government to implement a plan to ensure the orderly closure of old coal plants and 67 percent  of Australians (up from 61 percent in 2017) want a full transition to renewables in the next 20 years.

READ MORE: Dear Mr Morrison, Can We Remind You About The Problems With Coal?

Two thirds (66 percent) also agree that Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change -- this result is higher than at any time in the past seven years, showing that Australians are crying out for some political leadership.

Australia has been criticised for its silence during a key debate on global warming, which is being seen as implicit support for its oil producing allies. (Image: Getty)

This about-face on Australia’s role at COP is hard to comprehend, let alone implement, for the Australian Government negotiators working towards a resolution by the end of the week.

I should know, I use to be one!

For nearly a decade, I worked as climate negotiator at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and before that the Department of Climate Change.

Looking back at what now must look like the ‘good old days’ when Australia worked productively in climate negotiations, we would toil long days and into the night trying to bring everyone to the table and get a resolution.

READ MORE: I'm Taking Two Hours Off School To Teach Scott Morrison A Climate Lesson

Coming back this year as a civil society observer, my heart goes out to the Australian negotiators for the despair they might feel as the planet hurtles towards dangerous and irreparable climate disaster.

For the first time, it is Minister for the Environment Melissa Price representing Australia at COP24, and on Wednesday she called for a ‘new energy future’.

Embarrassingly for the Minister and for the Government, in her speech big-noting Australia’s climate action credentials, Melissa Price relied almost entirely on policies they tried to kill-off or water down.

Australian Environment Minister Melissa Price called for a 'new energy future' at COP24 . (Image: AAP)

With no proper climate plan, the only energy future Australia is contributing to is one of increasing pollution and increasing fossil fuel exports.  If this were in any doubt, one only has to look at Minister Angus Taylor’s latest rush to fast-track finance to extend the lives of old, coal fired power stations.

READ MORE: Greenlighting Adani While Queensland Burns Is Like Pouring Kerosine On A Bonfire

Compare this to 21st Century renewables technology, such as South Australia’s world-leading Tesla big battery, which has already saved $40 million in grid costs while “regulating the heartbeat of the national electricity market,” according to Garth Heron, battery owner Neoen SA's head of development for Australia.

Australia’s recalcitrance isn’t going unnoticed.

The largest group of observers at COP24, the Climate Action Network, awarded Australia the ‘fossil of the day’ award on Wednesday,  in part because the Morrison Government is likely to rely on accounting loopholes to meet Australia’s Paris Agreement target.

It seems it’s easy to claim Australia will meet its targets ‘in a canter’ when you know that behind the scenes some creative accounting is involved.

While it might be technically within the rules, it is most certainly not within the spirit of the Paris Agreement. Already, New Zealand has declared it would not be using the loophole and its Climate Change Minister went further and discouraged any country from using it (hint hint).

READ MORE: Australia Emissions Set To skyrocket To Seven Year High

It is unfortunate Australia’s climate policies are not determined by the Australian negotiators on the ground, who are busy in Poland teasing out the technical detail of the COP24 outcome -- something many have been working on even before the Paris Agreement.

The blame for the hole Australia’s climate policy is now in lays firmly at the feet of Australia’s policymakers.

Delegates will leave the Polish coal-capital of Katowice in a few days and return home. For most delegates, their countries will continue their plans to transition from black to green.

For Australia, it’s an open question. Will Australia continue to be ruled by coal obsessives intent on pushing the country back to black, or will the Australian people stand up and choose a new renewable energy future?