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Australia the outlier in Biden’s brave new zero-emissions world

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“Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom, they won’t be set in Brussels, they won’t be set in any other part of the world,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said rebuffing his UK counterpart Boris Johnson.

At any conference convened by Biden, this thinking places our Prime Minister as an outlier. We’ve positioned ourselves with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, currently making a burnt husk out of the Amazon, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from the Saudi petro state, itself struggling with record summer temperatures – with one of its cities hitting 55 degrees Celsius. We will be aligned with the leader who, with Donald Trump’s departure, is now the world’s climate denier-in-chief – “the Trump of the tropics” – and a desert kingdom that only knows one way of generating wealth – extracting and burning.

For Australia, which talks up gas and won’t commit to net zero, Brazil and Saudi Arabia are congenial partners. The Brazilian Foreign Minister says climate change is a plot by “cultural Marxists”. This is little different from what gets said on Sky by Scott Morrison’s closest media allies.

Saudi delegates at international conferences have been working to retard action on climate since the Madrid conference in 1995. That’s not that different from former Prime Minister John Howard. Marian Wilkinson in The Carbon Club reveals that Howard at his first meeting with George W. Bush in 2001 volunteered to work with the new president to undermine the Kyoto Protocol, upending the UN negotiations on climate.

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But battered by Californian fires and Gulf Coast hurricanes – both worsened by climbing temperatures – the US has elected a president who believes the science, and with a popular vote majority that may be as high as six million. The Biden program overlaps neatly with the Green New Deal of progressive Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When released in early 2019, the Congresswoman’s massive policy package was seen as radical.

Canberra now has to scramble to keep up with a US that’s committed to getting all coal and gas out of its grid by 2030 and basing economic stimulus on green initiatives that will render it net zero carbon by 2050. The 100 environment regulations that Trump rolled back will be re-imposed by presidential directive.

Indeed, Biden has already committed to “aggressive new methane limits” on gas and oil by presidential executive action on day one of his presidency. This will be Biden’s strategy for getting around opposition from a Republican-dominated Senate: robustly using presidential directives. Biden’s team wants the US to build a global coalition to press coal-financing countries to drop coal investments.

Senior ministers in Morrison’s government last month urged a boycott of ANZ when the bank outlined plans to do just that, preparing for zero net emissions and ending funding of new coal mines and coal-fired power stations by 2030. This was cautious risk assessment by the bank to reduce the carbon footprint of its loan book. What will Ministers Michael McCormack and David Littleproud say in January when it becomes the policy of our great ally? That we boycott US products in protest?

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Biden’s chief adviser on climate, John Podesta, who pushes the global coalition, speculated in his foreign affairs article in May about who might be America’s natural allies for “a climate-centred foreign policy”. He named Japan, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. They would be partners, he said, “for low or no-carbon economic transformation”. Podesta wrote the United Kingdom and members of the EU “would remain essential US allies in the pursuit of a net zero world”. But – oops – Australia doesn’t get a mention. Podesta was Clinton’s chief of staff and Obama’s adviser on climate. He knows us too well.

Do we want to be in the next president’s climate club or stay outside, muttering that our energy policies aren’t made by others? Australia last year said it would “step up” in the Pacific. Fine, said the Pacific Island states, but told us to stop opening mines and talking gas, to think about their reefs and villages before our romance with carbon. Canberra shrugged it off. But the small islands have just won a mighty ally. They now have a new president in their camp, his pen poised for a decarbonisation agenda.

Bob Carr was the longest-serving premier of NSW and Australia’s former foreign affairs minister. He is industry professor of climate and business at the University of Technology Sydney.

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