“We will not achieve net zero in inner city cafes”: Morrisons’ culture war on climate

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The efforts of the Australian government to greenwash their catastrophically insufficient climate policies seems to be accelerating, with a speech from PM Scott Morrison at the Business Council of Australia’s annual dinner receiving glowing coverage, despite it essentially being an announcement of further inaction.

The ABC reported that “Scott Morrison inches Australia towards 2050 net zero emissions”, The Financial Review declared that the “PM sets sail for net zero emissions by 2050”, and that “Scott Morrison is on the front foot ahead of US President Joe Biden’s climate summit”.

Within that very article, by Phillip Coorey, is this sentence: “The Morrison government is unlikely to step up its Paris commitment to reduce emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent over 2005 levels by 2030. Mr Morrison said last night Australia was well on target to exceed the commitment anyway”.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate that this didn’t seem to trigger any skepticism about Morrison “inching” towards a net zero target.

To get to “net zero by 2050”, you need to start taking substantial action right now. Today. Literally this very second. Because transforming any country’s economy into one totally removed from fossil fuels is a gargantuan undertaking, and one that we should have begun at least two decades ago.

This was modelled neatly in the 2020 report from Climate Analytics, ‘Scaling up Australia‘, which establishes what’s required to align with a1.5C global Paris target, and net zero by 2050:

That report suggests a 2030 target for Australia’s emissions (based off 2005 levels) should be at least 66% by 2030. Another recent report from Australian scientists suggested 75%, and yet another says it’s closer to 100%.

Australia’s target is between 26 and 28%. Australia’s 2030 emissions are projected to be 22% of 2005 levels, by the government’s own department. That’s taking into account both the COVID19 drop in emissions and the consequences of the Labor party’s vestigial renewable energy policies – it is a lie to say Australia is “on track” to beat even those horrifically weak and insufficient targets.

Morrison also claimed “Our domestic emissions have already fallen by 36% from 2005 levels” – he is using “per capita” emissions instead of actual emissions; a ludicrous trick given climate change doesn’t respond differently based on population levels. “Australia has deployed renewable energy ten times faster than the global average and four times faster than in Europe and the United States” – without knowing what “fast” is meant to mean, it’s impossible to even check this. But the reason Australia’s percentage increase in renewable energy is so high is because it’s coming off such a low base.

Australia continues to have among the world’s highest share of coal – as it happens, 2020 was the year in which Australia officially overtook Germany – a country with more than three times Australia’s population – in total coal output.

The culture war cover works

Of course, this flurry of greenwashing was couched in glib, smirking culture-war keywords.

“We will not achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner will not be achieved by taxing our industries that provide livelihoods for millions of Australians off the planet”.

This obviously delighted a range of journalists and I’d happily bet that it drew audible, wine-soaked guffaws from the audience at the Business Council of Australia event. The fact that Morrison was in fact speaking at a dinner party in the inner city, surrounded by one of the highest densities of cafes and wine bars in the entire country, seems to have passed them all by.

This isn’t new for Morrison – during the harrowing heights of the Black Summer bushfires of early 2020, he said precisely the same thing.

“We listen to all Australians and we listen to Australians right across the country, not just those in the inner city. What we’ll do is take practical actions that deal with these challenges and that challenge is living in a hotter, drier and longer summer….so we won’t be bullied into higher taxes and higher electricity prices”.

That came very soon after the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said it was only “inner city raving lunatics” who were making a linkage between climate change and those catastrophic bushfires.

It’s no mystery that this is invoked (even in the shameless circumstance of Morrison being literally and physically in the exact circumstance he is deriding) because he wants to distract from the absence of actual climate policy. What is so painful here is that it works. 

Morrison is steadfastly refusing to act as if a net zero by 2050 is real – that means taking action today, and setting logical short-term targets for 2025 and 2030 to drive the changes needed. He’s hoping that by slinging a collection of deceptions, misleading statements and (easily checked) falsehoods in quick succession he’ll avoid scrutiny, and that coating them with a culture war tropes will seal the deal. He’s absolutely correct, and he’s fully aware that conceited soundbites will be treated as sincere climate policy if they hit the right notes for his narrow audience.

One of the clearest illustration of the power Morrison has over those who are meant to be scrutinising, contextualising, checking and analysing his claims was when, over the weekend, he announced a target to increase the usage of fossil fuels in South Australia, called it an “emissions reductions” target, and essentially saw uniform positive coverage for it (with some exceptions, including RenewEconomy).

The US is likely to double its 2030 target, perhaps up to 50%. There are rumblings that the UK will up its 2035 target to 78%. There will be many other major economies strengthening and advancing their climate ambitions, with plenty of real decarbonisation work to show for it. This ought to be a moment in which the very real and significant shortcomings of Australia’s climate policy – particularly with regard to the short term failures – ought to be centre stage.

Instead, empty promises and glib talking points are accepted as a substitute for substance.

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