Dermot O'Gorman, David Crosbie | Hosting COP31 could shift Australia and Pacific approach to addressing climate change

Smoke haze has smothered most of Brisbane over the last week, in parts it was so bad people with respiratory conditions were advised to stay indoors.

The smoke blanket was the result of controlled burns as emergency services strive to prepare for what they fear will be a potentially disastrous fire season. It’s not the first Australian capital to be afflicted and it won’t be the last.

And as a result, the nature of the climate discussions in Australia needs to be about much more than adapting to our new climate reality. It’s important that we get more Australians involved, more community-level input, about the impact climate change is having in our lives and to empower people to make a tangible difference.

The government has just earmarked $4 billion in budget funding towards making Australia “renewable energy superpower”, but the reality is we need to do much more than transition to renewable energy.

If Australia is concerned about its future, it must also take a leading global role in efforts to curb climate change and help provide a platform for Pacific nations that are literally being swallowed up by rising oceans.

So how do we recalibrate the old climate debates, engage the public in grassroots discussion and also play a global leadership role?

While this may not have the electricity of an Olympic bid, nor the public spotlight, it is highly significant. It would bring overseas investment and fast-track Australia’s ambition to be a global leader in renewable energy.

But just as importantly we believe COP31 can be a catalyst for communities, businesses, social groups, individuals and families to participate and to have conversations about climate action, leaving behind the mire of climate wars, and moving co-operatively into a new decade of opportunity.

It is on this basis that a group of like-minded organisations came together in Canberra this month with the objective of delivering a whole-of-society approach to COP31.

The advisory committee brought together non-governmental organisations, academics, peak bodies, and business for cross sector collaboration in building recommendations for government on delivering COP31.

The committee will act as an organising hub for the purpose sector to build around COP31 and leverage this moment for Australians broadly. We want to see COP31 not as a meeting of policy wonks, but as a symbol of Australia’s capacity to be a global leader in climate solutions.

A UN climate conference is the largest multi-lateral meeting outside of the annual leader’s gathering and General Assembly in New York. It is a logistical undertaking akin to an Olympic Games and routinely attracts over 35,000 participants from around the world.

The climate COP has become a climate action carnival – rolling together a tradeshow, investment hub and knowledge sharing centre in conjunction with formal negotiations. And while a COP’s true value lies with its purpose in addressing climate change, the meetings also generate considerable economic benefits to the host country and city.

Yet winning the bid to host COP31 is not a given. A lot depends on a country’s international standing and action on climate change. This will be the challenge for Australia.

While the Labor government has enacted several significant improvements in climate policy since gaining office, there remains a gulf between Australia’s emissions reduction aims and what is needed according to the science.

The government must take several brave steps. First, Australia must exit fossil fuels out of our economy, second it must seize the economic and social opportunity that the renewable revolution represents, and finally it must become a world leader in international development and global diplomacy.

These steps will transform COP31 from a UN meeting held in Australia, to one in which Australia and the Pacific could lead the way in transforming world systems and light the way for climate action during this critical decade.

Australia has some catching up to do to truly capture this opportunity.

But there is time, there is energy, there is capital – and communities across Australia are calling out for more action.

COP31 is our chance to deliver real change for people, the climate and nature.