Second are the pressures. The government survived the 2019 election despite high-profile opponents in inner-city electorates condemning the Coalition’s “inaction” on climate change.
Whatever comfort the government took from that result, it is very likely the bushfires have
reduced community tolerance of perceived inadequate climate change policy.
It is clear that many sectors of heavy industry, resources, insurance and finance have also become less tolerant, as have major regulatory, prudential and ratings organisations. And globally, the government will be under pressure to lift its target ahead of the UN’s annual international climate change conference, to be held in November in Glasgow.
Third are the constraints, not all working in the same direction. Despite the PM’s claims to the contrary, it seems Coalition party-room conflicts over climate change are as toxic as ever.
Finally is the question of what policies the states and territories will pursue – unilaterally, in unison, or with the Commonwealth – to meet their unanimous commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. This week, Victoria’s Liberal leader, Michael O’Brien, called on the federal government to adopt long-term “sensible” emissions reduction targets, saying communities and businesses need certainty beyond 2030.
Scott Morrison’s opportunity is to develop a political narrative and policy response that deals with
the facts and pressures without coming to grief on the constraints. Climate change is a long-term
problem, and political and policy constraints are always more acute in the short term. There are
several steps the PM could take to begin grasping this opportunity.
Changing the 2030 target is likely to prove beyond him. But the Coalition must eventually end its
silence on what should happen after 2030. Morrison has consistently avoided the question of
Australia’s obligations on the long road to 2050. The pressure of the bushfires means he cannot
avoid this question for much longer.
The position of the Australian states means that net zero by 2050 is, de facto, Australia’s national
emissions reduction target. An official commitment by the national government to that de facto
target would reduce the political gap between Morrison and his state Liberal colleagues, as well as
between him and international conservative peers such as Boris Johnson.
Significantly, it would be enough of a reset to mute the accusation that Morrison does not take climate change seriously. This step would leave a gap between the government’s targets and its policies. But Morrison wouldn’t need to do all the heavy lifting on his own. The states are already implementing emissions reduction policies. Consistency with them on the long-term goal may create space for federal leadership on the short term.
The economics of renewable energy are driving down electricity emissions, despite a lack of national policy. And Morrison could begin tweaking his existing policies while avoiding nasty debates about new policy mechanisms. For example, by strengthening the existing safeguard mechanism, which places limits on how much individual companies can emit, he could require businesses to buy the required abatement, rather than using taxpayers’ money through the Climate Solutions Fund.
Politics dictates that Australia’s climate policies will continue to be messy and incremental. The way forward is likely to be neither pretty nor bold in the way that many of us may prefer. But a change in national long-term ambition would ensure that some good flows from the awful tragedy of the bushfires.
Success will position Scott Morrison as a worthy successor to the pragmatic Liberal leaders, Robert Menzies and John Howard. Failure will consign him to being yet another Australian political leader left defeated on the battlefield of our country’s climate wars.
Tony Wood is the director of the Grattan Institute’s energy program and a former executive general manager of Origin Energy.
Tony Wood is head of the energy program at the Grattan Institute.