In the lead-up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday, there were rumours flying that he was set to announce a target of net zero emissions by the year 2050. Unsurprisingly, Morrison did not announce this, but he did for the first time state that if this were to occur, that it would be nice:
“Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”
Of course, this doesn’t constitute any kind of substantial change. It’s not even particularly clear that declaring the target would constitute substantial change. When Morrison is eventually cornered into taking some sort of long-term target setting action (my theory is that it’ll be 2060-2075), it’ll be heralded as the dawn of a new era on climate policy in Australia – the breaking of the circuitous and unbreakable loop in action that’s plagued the country for more than a decade.
Of course, establishing a target and working to achieve that target are two separate things. Once that flurry of back-patting passes, it’ll become clear that nothing has changed. Australia’s emissions will rise rapidly as the country recovers from COVID19 impacts, government policies will focus entirely on incentivising fossil fuel companies and directing all climate policies towards edge-cases and niche applications. Australia’s government will continue to act as if the target doesn’t exist, while soaking up congratulations that stem from having the target in place.
How we do we know this? It is precisely what is happening with the government’s 2030 Paris Agreement targets. The latest projections from the government show that Australia is on track to miss these targets, with that forecasted failure driven by massive expansions of Australia’s gas mining industry, rising emissions from the transport sector and industrial emissions that simply won’t change at all. The progress of renewables, driven mostly by the Labor party’s renewable energy target, has driven some change, but that has been entirely cancelled out by expansions of fossil fuel industries.
The federal government treats international, respected short term climate targets as if they don’t exist. How do you think Scott Morrison will treat a “preference” for net zero by 2050?
For the past two years, much of the coverage of Morrison on climate has featured a wishful approach; over-analysing every gleam in the eyes of federal policymakers, scrabbling to decipher coded references to some hidden desire to act on climate change. It’s problematic because it perpetuates an endless cycle of never-met expectations, but the bigger problem is that it distracts from the fact that nothing is being done today.
In the 2010s, fossil fuel industry advocacy sat in two camps: denying climate science, and attacking climate solutions (mostly renewables). In the 2020s, it has become wholly and purely a game of figuring out how late action can be delayed while still feigning concern about climate change.
After the Black Summer bushfires, similar murmurings about an incoming climate policy reset occurred. Since then, Australia has embarked on a range of significant new policy initiatives that incentivise fossil fuels and worsen climate change. The latest report on post-COVID economic stimulus from the consultancy Vivid Economics lists them in detail:
- “The Australian government is supporting the airline industry by extending US$437 million in loans and tax deferrals without green conditions. Because airlines are a high emissions subsector in transport, this policy imposes a negative weight on the sector.
- “Other damaging measures include the opening up of 7,000 square km of land for coal and gas exploration, and the introduction of exploration grants, both in Queensland, as well as the development of the onshore gas industry in the Northern Territory”
The lowest hanging fruit for rapid climate action in Australia right now are the power and transport sectors. Fossil-fuelled power stations need to be shut down ASAP, and support for new zero carbon alternatives needs to ramp up significantly. Australia’s massive fleet of combustion cars keeps growing, and transport emissions have recovered to pre-pandemic highs.
Despite this, Morrison is setting up a climate debate between “technology and taxes”. “Getting to net zero, whether here or anywhere else, should be about technology not taxes and high prices,” Morrison told the Press Club. It’s a fabricated dichotomy that gets sillier every day. Morrison’s signature climate policy, the Emissions Reductions Fund, is of course solely paid for through taxation, and the money used by agencies ARENA and CEFC are too.
To make climate action occur as fast as it needs to in Australia, you need technology and you need government intervention. Both of these could be shaped in ways that are profoundly beneficial to Australians – creating many new jobs, new industries and leading to direct, immediate improvements in cities and towns as the switch to clean energy accelerates. There is no dichotomy here; Morrison is simply preparing to go into an election accusing Labor of ‘taxing’ Australians.
Perhaps the most important moment came when Morrison referenced John Kerry, the US administration’s new Climate Envoy.
“[Kerry] said the US could reduce their emissions to zero tomorrow and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Why? Because all the emissions increases are happening in developing countries. Now, they’re not going to switch off their economies. They’re not going to do it. I tell you why they will do it, in terms of making a change, if there’s commercial technology that enables them to do it”.
It’s important that Morrison referenced this, because it’s a severe misrepresentation of the point Kerry was making in his maiden speech in the role, but accidentally meaningful. Kerry was, in fact, making reference to the point that countries acting on climate need to become strong global advocates for change:
“[President Biden] also knows that Paris alone is not enough — not when almost 90 percent of all of the planet’s emissions — global emissions — come from outside of U.S. borders. We could go to zero tomorrow and the problem isn’t solved. So that’s why today, one week into the job, President Biden will sign this additional executive set of orders to help move us down the road, ensuring that ambitious climate action is global in scope and scale, as well as national, here at home”
Kerry was misquoted across a range of right-wing and climate denying media networks to imply that he thought action was fruitless, rather than his actual point that action must be paired with global advocacy. Morrison was attempted to engage in the same diversion. Of course, Australia is going to be one of the countries that is targeted by the US’ new-found confidence on global climate posturing – Kerry isn’t just talking about developing nations. He’s talking too about laggards that could act, but don’t. Morrison is re-mixing his own danger as an argument in his favour.
All of this could be happily avoided through the creation of ambitious, effective and clear-headed domestic policy on climate. But nothing has changed – including the bad habit of treating an existential issue that relates to our health and safety like an amusing political game with little consequence beyond leadership spats and hurt feelings.