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Australia suddenly isolated in the new global climate

In a statement congratulating Joe Biden, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “We also look forward to working with President-elect Biden to … develop new technologies to reduce global emissions as we practically confront the challenge of climate change.”

An uncharitable observer might see this as code for continued inaction – “technologies” as a distraction from tangible action today, and “practically” as an allusion to the government’s refusal to rely on taxes or regulation, which virtually all economists agree are the only “practical” ways to get us to net zero.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been defiant in the face of the rising sea change on climate action.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been defiant in the face of the rising sea change on climate action. Credit:Edwina Pickles

Morrison has to date been defiant in the face of a rising global sea change on climate. The EU and UK have been committed to net zero by 2050 for some time. And in the past six weeks, that sea change has become a tsunami. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to net zero by 2060, while Japan and South Korea have committed by 2050.

Now with Biden’s election, all of Australia’s top-five trading partners – collectively buying more than half of our exports – have signed up to net zero. Morrison might not countenance being dictated to by Brussels, but how about Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, London, and Washington – all together, all at once?

In the face of this near-consensus, any continued belief that intransigence is in our economic interests would be a spectacular display of naivety. How should we expect our trading partners to treat a climate shirker in the years ahead?

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The EU is already planning carbon tariffs to punish free-riders. Biden plans to spearhead a new trans-Pacific partnership – one can expect climate action to play a key role, especially given how imperiled so many of our Pacific neighbours will be under unmitigated climate change. Australia’s continued success in forging free-trade agreements will be put at risk by any continued unwillingness to step up to the plate.

But the Prime Minister still has an opportunity to turn the ship. Biden is still more than 70 days from giving his oath of office. Morrison is set to invite a President Biden to visit Australia next year to commemorate 70 years of the ANZUS treaty. That visit will be the perfect opportunity to formalise our commitment to the new climate world order a Biden administration will seek to lead.

It’s past time for Australia to commit to net zero by 2050. And to start that transition by meeting our 2030 Paris commitment without relying on our carryover credits. A global decarbonisation is inevitable; we must not be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future. We should start the transition on our own terms rather than on the less favourable terms our trading partners may foist upon us.

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Rather than an impost, we should see the transition as the economic opportunity that it is. Yet again, Australia finds itself the lucky country. As a big, flat, empty continent that abounds in plentiful sunshine and wind, we’re better placed than just about any country to become a green energy superpower.

Instead of keeping our heads in the sand, clinging to the fossil fuels of the past, let’s finally step up and do our bit as the leading global citizens we are.

Steven Hamilton is chief economist at Blueprint Institute and assistant professor of economics at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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