A Good COP in 2026?


Australia’s bid to co-host the “Pacific COP” in 2026 has attracted deserved scorn over fears of greenwashing, much of that coming from our Pacific Island partners. However, both The Greens and the Pacific Islanders should welcome the fact that the hosting bid will focus international attention on the fudging inadequacy of our climate policies and pressure us to change.

By Rob Delves, Green Issue Co-editor

In 2026 Australia is seeking to co-host the COP[1] 31 with the Pacific Islands. It’s likely that Labor will use the hosting to trumpet the news that Australia has come a long way from the climate-denying Coalition years and is now fully committed to strong climate action – a claim that surely will need to be delivered with industrial-scale loadings of greenwash. How should The Greens respond to this development? Oppose or encourage? Perhaps something in between, such as a cautious welcome combined with a clarion call to “lift your game?”


On the eve of the 2022 United Nations Climate Conference (COP 27), Chris Bowen announced that Australia was bidding to co-host the 2026 Conference. Given Australia’s (well-deserved) series of “Fossil Fool” awards over many years, it is clear we have so much reputation repair work to do that a solo bid would have been unlikely to win support, both in the broader international community and especially from our Pacific neighbours. In fact, the Government has said that “co-hosting COP 31 will help restore Australia’s reputation”. 

This is surely the main reason why the announcement included the news that the bid was being called “the Pacific COP.” For many years now, these low-lying island nations have despaired at our enormous and ever-growing carbon footprint and our lack of response to their pleas for help. Indeed, the fact that the bid has been presented as being a joint effort between Australia and Pacific countries already appears to have proven crucial to its success—Switzerland, for example, withdrew its own bid on the basis that “these countries are particularly hard hit by the effects of climate change, so [their] candidacy would have good chances.”


Supporters of the government’s proposal have declared that this is “Australia’s Olympic moment on climate action.” This could be a very good thing if it serves as a spur for the much stronger climate action the world needs to see from Australia – as in the Olympic motto of Faster-Higher-Stronger! Unfortunately, the opposite is usually the case: if a bid is successful this is seen as an endorsement that the country is worthy of the honour, rather than challenging itself to do much better. Countries use their Olympic Games hosting bids to sportswash their image, hiding their questionable credentials and exaggerating their achievements. The bids for the 2014 Russian Winter Olympics, the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 and Winter Olympics in 2022 are particularly notorious examples of sportswashing significant environmental damage and human rights abuses.

Moreover, the COP hosting process is already seriously undermined. Major fossil fuel producer the United Arab Emirates is hosting this year’s COP 28 off the back of COP 27 in Egypt  ̶  how can any objective observer believe that these hosts were being rewarded for being champions of climate action?  

In The Australia Institute’s new report, A Fair Cop31, Climate & Energy Program Director, Polly Hemming, says that the Olympic metaphor should serve as a warning, not an inspiration:

“History shows us that the Olympics has often been used by countries with questionable credentials to sportswash their image. Australia’s bid to host the COP appears to be an attempt at greenwashing their planned fossil fuel expansion. A better place to start would be to stop subsidising and approving new gas and coal projects. Awarding Australia COP hosting rights in anticipation of it changing its ways would be, at best, a case of putting the cart before the horse, and at worst, a case of rewarding a country for decades of recalcitrance.”

There won’t be many Greens who disagree with that harsh assessment. However, I’d like to make the case for a Greens’ response that is certainly critical but also accentuates the possibilities. It is a positive that any Olympics or COP hosting bid does put a country’s environmental and social justice record under scrutiny. An instructive example was Sydney’s bid for the 2000 Olympics. The 1991 High Court Mabo decision reversed Terra Nullius and established Native Title rights for our First Nations people. It was a case of exquisite good timing for Sydney’s Olympic bid, because the Mabo decision had huge positive consequences for our international reputation. Mabo almost certainly got Sydney the 2000 Olympics over frontrunner Beijing (by a mere two votes in the final count).

Knowing that the African nations favoured Beijing because they were harsh critics of Australia’s treatment of its First Nations people, the Olympics Committee sent Margaret and Gough Whitlam to 12 African nations to champion Sydney’s bid. On every occasion our treatment of Aboriginal people was raised, but the Whitlams were able to explain how the law had changed to recognise Aboriginal prior  ̶  and in many cases continuing  ̶  ownership of the land. Our Olympics head honcho, John Coates, publicly stated that the Mabo decision definitely helped Sydney win the 2000 Olympics.


Australia’s history of evasion and inaction on climate change has left its Pacific neighbours distrustful of its intentions and created strained diplomatic relations throughout the region. Pacific Island nations have been some of the most vocal advocates for an end to fossil fuel production—unsurprisingly, given the existential threat that rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather events pose to their communities. Australia, meanwhile, has fought consistently to water down climate-related agreements, manipulated international emissions accounting to meet its climate targets, and used foreign policy to secure ongoing demand for its fossil fuel exports.

So, although the Pacific Islanders do applaud the new government’s much better climate commitments, they recognise that our actions still fall well short of what’s required. Therefore, while Pacific nations have expressed in-principle support for Australia’s bid, they have also stated that Australia can only be a credible partner if it truly demonstrates that it is supporting the priorities of the Pacific on climate change. The unchanged enthusiasm for approving new and expanded fossil fuel projects is the biggest stumbling block.

Here is the response from Seve Paeniu, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Tuvalu: Australia wanted to frame [COP 31] as the Pacific COP, and it is in that light that we have expressed our expectation that we would only agree to the notion of framing [it] as a Pacific COP if Australia were to come on board and support the priorities of the Pacific on climate change. And this is inclusive of fossil fuels. So, the discussion we've been having [is] about doing away with subsidies; [stopping] issuing a new licensing for further fossil fuel production, coal mines and so forth; and [making] a commitment over time to reduce the consumption of coal and other fossil fuels in line with the 1.5°C trajectory pathway. …and then the second dimension is in terms of capacity technology transfer… we would like to see Australia really beefing up its commitment to supporting the Pacific Island nations to transition away from fossil fuel to renewables. So those are the two dimensions [on which] we certainly would like Australia to make firm commitments that would enable us, the Pacific, to really support the COP in Australia and be able to see [it] being a Pacific COP.


Just about every person who attends their first COP is immediately gobsmacked and then dismayed at the sheer size and dominance of the fossil fuel delegations. Why is it so?  At least in Australia’s case, it’s yet another example of what Greens call State Capture. Within Australia, this results in climate policies that are all designed to protect the fossil fuel industry, via some persuasive greenwashing. So, for example, we’ve had claims of huge emissions reductions ambition, but a lot of it is based on a thriving and very dodgy offsets industry  ̶  hardly threatening to the big fossil fuel producers, as Woodside, Santos, Chevron and all the others said they could live with the proposals.

Richard Denniss and Adam Bandt, amongst many others, have argued that while reducing emissions is in some ways complex and challenging, at heart it is very simple: stop doing the things that are the main cause of the problem, and are making the problem worse. That means no new or expanded fossil fuel projects and transitioning out of all existing fossil fuels as quickly as possible. However, Australia is the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter and has over 100 new gas and coal projects in development. Already the new government has approved four new coal mines and the Federal Court has dismissed legal action against the Environment Minister’s assessment of two coalmine expansions – ruling that the minister is not obliged to consider climate change harms in her review.

At the international level, the government is rebranding Australia as a renewable energy superpower, trumpeting our increased domestic climate target but hoping others won’t notice our huge and expanding coal and gas export industry. It’s a big charm offensive whose key aims are to secure ongoing markets for fossil exports or obstruct the climate ambition of other countries so they continue to need our exports.


Let’s acknowledge that the hosting bid comes with a full serve of greenwashing. Based on its decades of climate-laggard behaviour and also on its current feigning and fudging, Australia doesn’t deserve the honour of playing host to COP 31. However, the bid offers two important opportunities:  it invites international scrutiny that should expose the inadequacy of our climate ambition and it provides the world — including the Pacific nations — with an opportunity to demand that Australia take leadership for much deeper and rapid emission reductions, because on a per capita basis we probably do more climate-related damage than any, especially when our fossil fuel exports are counted.

In particular the hosting partnership allows our Pacific neighbours to exert strong pressure on us. These island nations have extra moral leverage because they are among the most vulnerable to early climate devastation, yet their contribution to the problem is miniscule.

As part of this co-hosting, The Greens should support the Pacific nations in demanding two things. The first is much greater financial assistance – and the obvious way to afford this is via a straight swap with fossil fuel subsidies. Australian governments collectively provide $11 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies, but have committed a measly $700 million to climate finance in the Pacific over four years. Swap them! Better still, don’t give the Chevrons and others the $700 million, but make it an opening claim to repay the climate damage they’ve done. The second is to commit to a total ban on all new fossil fuel projects or expansions, as the Pacific nations have been pleading for Australia to do for ages.

Header photo: Tokelau Pacific Warriors bringing climate change to the doorstep of the fossil fuel industry. Credit: 350.org

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]

[1] Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)