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Crunch time looming for Morrison on climate as the world looks to Australia to act

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Biden used his summit to unveil a new US 2030 target of 50–52 per cent reductions in emissions. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga offered up a 46 per cent reduction target and Canada’s Justin Trudeau put up 40–45 per cent. All were close to double Australia’s 2030 target. But Morrison again declined to commit even to a net zero by 2050 target, let alone change Australia’s 2030 target.

Before Morrison could put his case to the summit, a senior US administration official was briefing the media, suggesting Australia’s strategy was unsustainable. “At the moment I think our colleagues in Australia recognise there is going to have to be a shift,” the official said. “It’s insufficient to follow the existing trajectory and hope that they will be on a course to deep decarbonisation and getting to net zero emissions by mid-century.”

But when Morrison spoke, he stuck to the “technology not taxes” mantra and Australia’s slower approach to reducing emissions. “Australia is on the pathway to net zero,” he said. “Our goal is to get there as soon as we possibly can, through technology that enables and transforms our industries, not taxes that eliminate them and the jobs and livelihoods they support and create, especially in our regions. For Australia, it is not a question of if or even by when for net zero, but importantly, how.”

To back up his argument, Morrison invoked Dr Alan Finkel, noting that the former chief scientist was now the government’s special adviser on low-emissions technology and the roadmap. But as one former insider put it, Morrison cannot use Finkel as a human shield for his policy.

Morrison’s argument of “how” not “when” Australia gets to net zero missed the point. For Biden, it is a question of when as well as how. This is not just about the climate science. The United States sees itself in a race against China for clean energy supremacy in the net-zero emissions world. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made this clear shortly before the Biden summit.

“It’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution,” Blinken told reporters. “Right now, we’re falling behind. China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles. It holds nearly a third of the world’s renewable energy patents. If we don’t catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we’ll lose out on countless jobs for the American people.”

Biden, like the Europeans, wants to spend big to back the rapid shift to clean energy. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm underscored the new urgency in Washington when she announced at the summit a US goal to slash the cost of “clean renewable hydrogen” by 80 per cent by 2030, making it competitive with natural gas.

Australia risks being overrun in this clean energy race. If green hydrogen becomes competitive with natural gas by the end of the decade, the oil and gas industry will react by slashing prices, and Australian liquefied natural gas prices will plummet. As Fortescue Metals’ chairman Twiggy Forrest put it colourfully in his Boyer lecture, the result will be “like a knife fight in a telephone box”.

For now, the Morrison government is making a strategic bet that the energy transformation won’t happen this fast. It does not believe that China, let alone India, will be able to radically shift course this decade. This will put the 1.5 Celsius plans out of reach and curb the enthusiasm in developed countries for ambitious targets to cut emissions.

The message from Morrison and his Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, Angus Taylor, is that Australia’s big exports of liquefied natural gas and coal will continue for decades to come.

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The latest International Energy Agency review gives some comfort for this view. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge again in 2021, the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of the pandemic’s decline. This year’s expected rise in coal use dwarfs that of renewables. Some 80 per cent of the projected growth in coal demand is expected to come from Asia, led by China. As IEA chief Fatih Birol put it: “We remain on a path of dangerous levels of global warming.”

But the IEA also released its own roadmap in May, warning that if the world wanted to keep to the 1.5 Celsius goal, there could be no new oil and gas fields approved for development beyond 2021, and no new coalmines or mine extensions. The IEA roadmap, “Net Zero by 2050”, flew in the face of both Labor and Coalition support for new fossil fuel developments.

Labor’s muted response to the Biden summit and the 1.5-degree goal has reinforced the view in the government that its current policy is the right course politically. But outside Australia, there is a growing belief that China’s clean energy transition will speed up, due to its capacity for innovation and its need to compete with the US.

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Former Australian diplomat Dean Bialek, who is now advising Britain on preparations for COP26, believes there is a chance that China will bring more to Glasgow than Xi’s net zero by 2060 pledge. “I think the Chinese could do it if they wanted. I think their current policy positions are intended to leave a bit of negotiating room this year. Both on the net zero timeline but also in terms of where they can get to by 2030,” said Bialek. “And indeed whether they could potentially look at bringing forward the current target on peaking of emissions – which is currently expressed as ‘around 2030’ – to a much earlier date, to 2025, is one that has been bandied around.”

The need for China, India and other big emitters in the developing world to ramp up their ambition in Glasgow explains why the US and Britain are so exercised about Australia’s 2030 target. As a rich developed country with abundant renewable resources, Australia’s weak target will give diplomatic succour to other carbon-intensive economies wanting to slow the pace of change, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Johnson invited Morrison to Cornwall for the G7 meeting in June in part because of this. His other special guests were India, South Africa and South Korea. In their final communique, the G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reach net zero no later than 2050 and to halve their collective emissions by 2030. They also called for international investment in unabated coal-power generation to stop, committing to end new government support for it by the close of this year.

The message to Morrison from the entire G7 leadership was that big-emitting economies such as Australia needed to bring their highest possible ambition to cut emissions to Glasgow. But Morrison baulked again at the G7, refusing to give either Biden or Johnson a commitment to reach net zero by 2050 or to agree to an ambitious 2030 target. Instead he kicked the decision down the road.

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In Canberra, where the climate wars still haunt politicians on both sides, the goal of keeping to 1.5 degrees is still seen by many as the naive aspiration of climate scientists, activists and school strikers. Morrison is certainly trapped in this mentality, quipping to the Business Council dinner this year: “We’re not going to achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities.”

Morrison has never accepted the urgency of the science on climate change, but he is increasingly becoming an outlier among world leaders. Between now and November, he has a decision to make: whether he will join those leaders who see the Glasgow summit as the world’s last best hope to get the clean energy transition on track – or side with those whose aim is to derail it.

This is an edited extract of Marian Wilkinson’s essay “The Outlier” from the current issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, Feeling the Heat: Australia Under Climate Pressure, published today.

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