Asked on Sunday about the need to reduce carbon emissions, Mr Morrison said he understood the challenge and was getting the emissions down.
“Emissions today are 50 million tonnes less on average each year under our government than under the previous government,” he said.
Mr Morrison has made the same assertion in a series of interviews during the summer bushfire crisis but Labor branded the claim “unconscionable” because the biggest cut to emissions had come under Labor.
While the average figure for annual emissions is lower for the past six years when compared with the preceding six years, this is largely because the output fell significantly before the Coalition took power in September 2013.
Annual emissions including land use fell from 622 million tonnes in 2007, when Kevin Rudd led Labor to power, to 538 million tonnes in 2013 and 533 million tonnes in 2014.
The Abbott government repealed the Gillard government’s price on carbon with effect from July 1, 2014.
Labor’s climate change assistant spokesman Pat Conroy said Mr Morrison was misleading Australians by using an average figure to claim credit for actions taken before the Coalition formed government.
“Mr Morrison’s fake number distorts the data and takes credit for reductions actually achieved under the former Labor government, not the Coalition,” Mr Conroy said.
“At a time of public concern about climate change, Australia deserves better than deceit and inaction from their Prime Minister on emissions reduction.”
Energy Minister Angus Taylor responded by saying emissions were on average 47.4 million tonnes lower per year compared to the previous government.
“In the six years to the 2018-19 financial year, Australia’s economy grew by 16 per cent. Over this same period, the emissions intensity of Australia’s economy declined by 15 per cent,” Mr Taylor said in a statement.
Australian National University professor Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Centre, warned yesterday the government would not meet its pledge to reduce emissions by 2020 on the current trajectory.
Professor Howes said there had been a “very marginal reduction” in emissions under the Coalition but that this would not meet Australia’s treaty commitment to reduce emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 relative to 2000.
While the Department of Environment produces a range of figures, the results under the Kyoto Protocol benchmark show emissions falling from 540 million tonnes in 2000 to 532 million tonnes in 2020. This is a fall of 1.5 per cent.
Professor Howes said the government was likely to meet a “multi-year target” for 2020 when emissions were measured over a longer period.
The director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, Mark Howden, said the trend was especially troubling when figures for the energy, transport and resources sectors were considered because this was where policy change could have the greatest effect.
“The current policy mix isn’t taking us on that downward trajectory and so we need other things in the policy mix,” he said.
On Sunday, Mr Morrison did not commit to new targets but raised the possibility of new policies over time to go “even further” on reducing emissions, triggering a debate among Liberals and Nationals over whether greater action was needed.
Queensland Liberal MP Trevor Evans, the assistant minister for environmental management, said he welcomed Mr Morrison’s comment that policies would evolve over time.
“We need to keep tracking and monitoring our emissions and judging whether our suite of policies is effective,” Mr Evans said.
“And we need to be open to future policies evolving.”
Victorian Liberal MP Katie Allen told followers on Facebook about Mr Morrison’s remarks and said she would be a strong voice “inside the tents” for action on climate change.
“I haven’t stopped harping on about it in the party room,” she said. “I’m excited we are starting to move in the right direction but we have a lot more to do.”
With more conservative Coalition MPs opposed to greater action on climate change, some Liberals said they would not call publicly for policy change during the bushfire crisis.
One said he welcomed Mr Morrison’s comments “with relief” when concerns about climate change were on the rise in the community, especially in metropolitan areas.
Another said “the shift is welcome” and a third said his interpretation of Mr Morrison’s remarks was that it left room to manoeuvre on policy options over time.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.