With the next round of UN climate talks just two months away, there is renewed speculation that the Morrison government will formally adopt a 2050 zero emissions target – but it will be too little too late in a diplomatic environment focused on accelerating a transition away from fossil fuels in the coming decade.
After a 12-month postponement, COP26 looks set to kick-off in the Scottish city of Glasgow in November – the first major round of climate negotiations since before the Covid pandemic.
It will also be the first meeting of climate negotiators in the Paris Agreement ‘era’, with a new focus on all countries ramping up commitments to cut emissions and delivering on a goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees.
Dual diplomatic efforts from both the United Kingdom, which will host the talks, and the United States, led by the newly elected Biden Administration, will use the negotiations to pile diplomatic pressure on traditional allies to ramp up their commitments to cut emissions.
As a key target of these diplomatic efforts, immense pressure is being placed on the Morrison government to have Australia adopt stronger targets or see itself sidelined at future diplomatic forums and potentially lumped with a range of trade measures, including carbon border adjustment taxes.
Even the OECD, now headed by former Morrison government minister Mathias Cormann, took a swipe at for its chaotic climate and energy policies, saying that “Australia now needs a coherent national strategy that defines clear goals and policies to move to net zero” in a new economic report.
Both Biden and Johnson are expected to lead on-the-ground diplomatic efforts, and it has been confirmed that the Queen will also make an appearance.
Growing speculation that Morrison himself will go to Glasgow serves as an indication that the prime minister may finally relent to mounting pressure and formally adopt a net zero emissions target for 2050.
Morrison will almost certainly expect praise for finally adopting a formal 2050 target – but it falls short of the pace and scale of action now needed to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement and won’t be enough to keep pace with the commitments being made by traditional allies.
In April, at his ‘Leaders Summit on Climate’, Biden announced that the United States would look to more than halve its emissions by 2030, setting itself an updated medium term target of cutting emissions by 50-52 per cent on 2005 levels
At the same summit, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would cut its emissions by 78 per cent by 2030 from its 1990 levels – this in addition to a 2030 target to reduce emissions by 68 per cent.
Pledges of new 2030 targets of similar scale were made by Canada, Japan, Germany and the wider European Union.
But at the summit, Morrison merely reiterated Australia’s comparatively limp commitment to cut emissions by just 26 to 28 per cent by 2030, a target first adopted by the Abbott government back in 2014.
The recent landmark assessment report of current climate change science, published by the IPCC, found that the world was on track to exceed 1.5 degrees of global warming within the next 20 years. Not only would the world need to transition to zero emissions well before 2050, but an active drawdown of existing atmospheric greenhouse gases would be necessary to keep warming below the 1.5-degree threshold.
Delays in action, scientists argued, will now require emissions cuts to be made deeper and faster than previously predicted and the focus on reaching net zero emissions by 2050 was now an outdated goal. As a result, language has shifted to a focus on cutting emissions as quickly as possible, with scientists warning that every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and will contribute to worsening climate impacts.
But, with Scott Morrison and energy minister Angus Taylor set to lead Australia’s delegation to the Glasgow talks, Australia is highly unlikely to show any form of leadership when it comes to new commitments, and it is more likely that Australia will continue to act as a disrupter at the conference.
Australia was a major antagonist of the last UN climate talks, held two years ago in Madrid, having aligned itself with a group of countries that included Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Trump Administration in fighting for loopholes and convenient accounting rules that other countries dubbed as going against the ‘spirit of the Paris Agreement’.
Australia led a fight over surplus emissions credits from the Kyoto Protocol, demanding that Australia be allowed to carry over these leftover credits into Paris Agreement and use them to meet its 2030 emissions targets.
Australia has more than 400 million tonnes worth of surplus emissions credits leftover from the Kyoto Protocol, which exist primarily due to the overly generous emissions reduction budgets Australia adopted under the Kyoto treaty rather than any substantial efforts to actually reduce emissions.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this fight remained unresolved at the end of the Madrid talks, with countries agreeing to relitigate the fight at the next round of negotiations – meaning the issue of the surplus Kyoto credits will feature at this year’s talks in Glasgow.
Abandonment of its position on the Kyoto surplus credits, and even of an adoption of a 2050 net zero target, won’t see Australia deliver a victory for the climate, but would merely be another example of the Morrison government doing the bare minimum.