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As U.N. climate summit begins, export emissions are getting extra scrutiny

NOEL KING, HOST:

Most of the coal that is mined in Australia is exported overseas. And Australia plans to keep it that way over the coming decades. But Australia's coal industry is getting a lot of negative attention as world leaders meet in Glasgow this week for climate change talks.

Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Australia is a significant contributor to climate change, and it's a victim of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBORAH KNIGHT: We are in the midst of a bushfire crisis tonight.

BRADY: Nearly two years ago, climate-fueled wildfires led TV newscasts.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A mighty inferno.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We've been here for 50 years, and this is the worst I've seen.

BRADY: More than 42 million acres burned. Thirty-three people died. And more than 3,000 homes were destroyed. But these fires barely got a mention recently as Australia's conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, finally announced his country's pledge to zero out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Scientists say that's what's needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Instead, Morrison talked about how addressing climate change will affect the economy.

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PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Australians want action on climate change, and so do I. But they also don't want their electricity bills to skyrocket, the lights to go off or for their jobs to be put at risk.

BRADY: Morrison also referred to pressure the U.N. and others put on his administration to move away from coal.

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MORRISON: We won't be lectured by others who do not understand Australia. The Australian way is all about how you do it, not if you do it.

BRADY: There are scant details on how he'll meet the pledge. Morrison says he'll focus on new technology, not taxes. And he clearly sees a long future for coal. During his time in office, Australia has continued approving new coal mines and setting new fossil fuel export records.

Lucy Manne heads the climate group 350 Australia.

LUCY MANNE: There's a huge sense of embarrassment, I think, that Australia is really not doing enough, but actually going to these global events, like COP26, and trying to play a destructive role and actually trying to block progress.

BRADY: COP26 is the name for the Glasgow climate talks. Australia still gets more than half its electricity from coal-fired power plants. While that share is declining, it's the country's exports that contribute most to climate pollution. About three-quarters of the coal Australia mines for power plants is sent overseas. The activist group Global Energy Monitor says greenhouse gas emissions from that coal are greater than the fossil fuel emissions for all of Australia. Add in natural gas exports, and the emissions are more than double the entire country's. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, none of those exports are counted as Australia's emissions. Instead, the country importing and burning the fossil fuel has to count them.

University of New South Wales professor Jeremy Moss says fossil fuel exporters should be held more accountable.

JEREMY MOSS: Countries like Australia or Saudi Arabia or even the U.S. don't want to take any responsibility for the emissions that might be associated with their exported fossil fuels.

BRADY: Moss thinks these countries should take it upon themselves to stop exporting emissions by creating what he calls a reverse OPEC.

MOSS: A kind of positive cartel, as it were, to limit the supply and the production of fossil fuels that would send a really clear and strong message to the rest of the world that the fossil fuel age is ending.

BRADY: Even Moss admits such a cartel is unlikely to come from the Glasgow climate meeting. Still, change may be coming in Australia. The opposition Labor Party says it plans to put climate change at the center of its upcoming election campaign, which must happen before next May.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "RAPPAHANNOCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.