AFPA Chair Joel Fitzgibbon – COP28 Opinion Piece – Originally published in The Australian 6-12-2023

The annual United Nations climate change conference is something to behold. In the pavilions of the COP’s Blue Zone, singing and proselytising are a constant reminder of the religious-like fervour many activists bring to their cause. Yet most believe they have come to Dubai to do good things for our planet. 

But while the climate change challenge brings unity of cause, opinions vary widely on the best pathway to success. Some focus entirely on emissions reductions, recklessly demanding an immediate cessation of fossil fuel consumption.

Others recognise the urgency and enormity of the challenge and understand that such a big task requires time, calm and multiple solutions. This is the sensible message business leaders and industry bodies brought to COP28. 

Some COP participants are right to promote the future role of still emerging technologies like green hydrogen and green steel. Others sensibly urge a greater role for tried and tested but still under-utilised methods like nature-based solutions, carbon capture and bioenergy.

Along with our oceans, our trees are nature’s great carbon sinks. We need to plant more trees – both environmental and production trees.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change has declared: “a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from forests, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit”. 

On display at COP28 is the extent to which many European countries are utilising biomass from forestry and broad-acre non-food crops for fuel, heating, and electricity generation purposes.  We need to learn from their leadership.

The International Energy Agency tells us that we cannot achieve our decarbonisation goals without the deployment of carbon capture and storage in our coal and gas sectors. On-going activist opposition to this proven technology is irrational and smacks of ideology over reality.

Despite its proven role in reducing emissions, nuclear generation is another sector in the cross hairs of the activists. But their tactics on nuclear are more sinister. Despite the industry’s maturity, its safety record, and the substantial contribution it makes to global electricity generation, the activists continue to run their scare campaigns.  

It’s little wonder the World Nuclear Association’s COP pavilion has an Australia focus this year. Despite being a major provider of the uranium ore other countries generating nuclear energy rely on, we are one of the few wealthy nations that continues to reject zero-emissions nuclear generation. For the more rational amongst COP28’s participants, this remains a source of bemusement.   

They understand nuclear generation would face hurdles in Australia. Is it price competitive? Will it attract investors? Community support? And as an industry starting from scratch, the approvals and construction timelines would be long. But we don’t with any certainty know the answers to these questions because Australia has a legislative prohibition on the generation of nuclear power, a relic of Senate legislative wheeling and dealing on anther subject-matter many years ago.  

A decision to lift the prohibition would not produce any benefits for Australia’s energy security or cost of living pressures in the short-term. But it would demonstrate to the decision makers who sit at COP negotiating tables that we are serious about meaningful action on climate change. 

The good news is that there are signs that the political class at COP is increasingly ignoring the extreme rhetoric emanating from some COP pavilions and coming to realise three things. First, they are not on track to achieve their international commitments. Second, the blinkered approach of wind, solar and battery technologies, to the exclusion of other practical technologies, isn’t enough to get us to net zero.

We see evidence of this change in both action and language. Last year, the nuclear pavilion was tiny, with participants physically giving it a wide berth. Led by the U.S. and France, this year, we see leaders announcing nuclear expansion. An increasing interest in nature-based solutions is another example. On language, it’s noteworthy that at COP27 the mantra was “keeping 1.5 (degrees) alive”. This year it’s “keeping 1.5 within reach”. A subtle change, but a change, nonetheless.  

The daily commute to COP28 on Dubai’s impressive and efficient rail system is instructive. There one observes the diversity of the many sharing the journey. They are a diverse lot and it’s nice to sit back and enjoy the sounds of so many conversations in so many languages. There is no dress code, some wear suits or equivalent, some dress more casually. Others proudly wear their impressive cultural attire, including some impressive headwear.     

Most look happy. The business-types because they feel their messages are finally being heard.  Others because they just love a chance to protest. Yet the protesters seem as oblivious to the progress of the nearby climate talks as the politicians and negotiators involved in the formal talks are oblivious to them. 


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