Time for Australia to admit it’s a petrostate

Dec 27, 2023
Australian flag on the background of coal, Concept of Coal Mining and Extraction in Australia, Rising commodity prices in the world, Environmental impact, Industry and the economy of the country

The first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging it. And for Australia on climate change, that means admitting we are a petrostate.

The paradox is glaring: while the UAE and Saudi Arabia are readily acknowledged and seemingly proud to be petrostates, Australia’s similar status is unspoken. It’s time to confront this uncomfortable truth – we are the third-largest fossil fuel exporter globally and the single largest exporter of coal and gas.

Petrostates are nations whose economies rely heavily on fossil fuel exports, often with a resulting and disproportionate influence by the fossil fuel industry on their economic, political, and social structures. This is certainly the case for Australia. The fossil fuel industry has transformed us into a major player in the global energy market. And our political, social and cultural institutions have been clearly captured by it.

Australia’s substantial role in the global fossil fuel trade not only rivals, but indeed surpasses, traditional heavyweights. Australia is the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels globally. Our annual coal exports are around 400 million metric tons per annum. In comparison, the UAE, exports around 114 million metric tons of oil per annum. Our gas industry is equally noteworthy. In 2021, we were the world’s largest gas exporter, surpassing Qatar and the United States.

Compounding the issue is blatant messaging from the Australian government about expanding our coal and gas industries. Resources Minister Madeline King has boldly proclaimed that “gas and coal in Australia will be needed for decades.” Earlier this year, Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen made a trip to Japan and Korea where he assured them Australia would be “a reliable supplier of gas far into the future”. And Environment Minister Plibersek has based her continued approval of coal mines on an argument that other countries need Australia’s fossil fuels – the so-called ‘drug dealer defence’. This overt promotion of the fossil fuel sector undermines our credibility on the global stage, especially in the midst of escalating efforts to combat climate change and phase out fossil fuels as its major cause. Australia risks isolation, condemnation and economic stagnation if we continue down this path.

As we vie to host COP31, it’s essential to reflect on the UAE’s hosting of COP28 as a cautionary tale. The event showcased the hypocrisy and challenges of a nation deeply entrenched in the fossil fuel industry leading climate discussions. Australia’s bid to host COP31, raises concerns about the sincerity of our commitment to addressing climate change. There are significant risks to our national interests, especially in the Pacific where we aim to be the so-called ‘partner of choice’. Pacific and other small island states were clearly betrayed by the process at COP28.

As the UN Secretary General said at the end of COP28, a “fossil fuel phase out is inevitable”. If Australia fails to deal with its petrostate reality, COP31 will tarnish our reputation and national interests further.

We stand at a crossroads – we can either acknowledge our role as a petrostate and take bold steps towards a safe future free from fossil fuels, or we can continue down a path that prioritises coal and gas over the well-being of the planet and our national interests. Admitting the truth is the first step in catalysing change. As the world shifts rapidly to a cleaner, greener future, we cannot afford to be left behind, shackled by chains of our own making.

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