Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled a long-awaited climate plan on Tuesday, finally announcing that his country would join the other developed nations by aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
It should be a moment to celebrate. The shift comes after months of pressure from international allies, the Australian people and even members of Morrison’s own center-right Liberal Party. The news was also warmly welcomed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will be hosting the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow that begin Sunday.
But in reality, Morrison will go to COP26, reluctantly, with the weakest climate plan among the G20’s developed nations. The leader has also ignored months of calls to increase the country’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is at around half that of the US’ pledge, and even further below the European Union’s and United Kingdom’s.
After publishing a defiant op-ed to announce the policy, in which the leader said he “won’t be lectured by others who do not understand Australia,” Morrison told journalists that he didn’t even intend to put net zero into law.
Dozens of countries have already put forward plans to reach net zero – where greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and any remaining emissions are removed from the atmosphere – ahead of Glasgow. More than a dozen have already enshrined them into law, and most that have announced the goal intend to legislate in the future.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Morrison said his government would achieve net zero by 2050 “the Australian way” by balancing the risk of climate change without damaging the economy.
“Our plan, most importantly, backs Australians to achieve what they want to achieve when it comes to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Australians want to do that and our plan enables them to do that. Our plan works with Australians to achieve this goal. Our plan enables them, it doesn’t legislate them, it doesn’t mandate them, it doesn’t force them. It respects them,” Morrison said.
Of the G20’s advanced nations, only Australia, Italy and the US still have net zero in policy documents, rather than in law, a net zero tracker from the UK-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit shows. In the US’ case, President Joe Biden is at least trying hard to get his sweeping climate plans through Congress. He’s struggling, but he’s likely to get something passed to support net zero. And Italy’s targets will need to eventually meet requirements set by the EU. That essentially makes Australia the weakest link.
The Australian Climate Council, which is independent of the government, dismissed Morrison’s announcement as flimsy.
“The Morrison government’s net zero by 2050 announcement is a joke without strong emissions cuts this decade,” the Climate Council’s head of research Simon Bradshaw told CNN.
Bradshaw said that even with the net-zero commitment, Australia ranked “dead last” of all developed nations on its climate record. In a recent report, the council found that Australia was the worst-perfoming developed nation in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and moving beyond fossil fuels.
The Climate Council has calculated that Australia should reduce its emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2035 to do its fair share in containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as scientists say is needed to stave of worsening impacts of the climate crisis.
“As a first step, Australia should match the updated commitments of our key allies – including the US and the UK – and pledge before Glasgow to at least halve national emissions this decade,” Bradshaw said.
‘I’ve seen more detailed fortune cookies’
Australia is the world’s second-biggest coal exporter and its resources minister, Keith Pitt, has the country would continue to mine and sell coal abroad well beyond 2030. Coal is the single biggest contributor the climate crisis and COP26 President Alok Sharma wants an agreement on phasing it out, with developed nations targeting an end date of 2030.
Morrison’s hesitancy in announcing net zero hung largely on the stance of his party’s political allies, the Nationals, many of whom opposed the policy.
To get net zero over the line he had to strike a deal with the Nationals, promoting Pitt to a cabinet minister.
Chris Bowen, the opposition Labor Party’s shadow minister for climate, described the government’s announcement as a “scam” with no new policy detail.
“I’ve seen more detailed fortune cookies than the document released by the government today. Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the planet and the biggest opportunity facing Australia. It requires leadership,” he said.
Climate change is expected to be a major issue in the next federal election to be held early next year. It will be a two-way contest between Labor and the governing Coalition of the Liberals and Nationals.
Climate legislation and the concept of a carbon tax has been the downfall of many Australian leaders. And as Morrison’s Liberal Party lose popularity in polling, the prime minister has done everything in his power to show that his government would not impose any kind of tax on energy use.
In his plan, he emphasizes “tech not taxes,” and without plans to legislate, the net-zero goal remains purely aspirational in Australia and lacks any mechanism of accountability should the target be missed.
Bill Hare, a physicist, climate scientist and CEO of non-profit science and policy institute Climate Analytics, said the plan lacked detail and there was “absolutely no way” it would help Australia reach net zero by 2050.
“It just doesn’t stack up,” he said.
“The so-called technology roadmap has no real detail to it. That’s the largest part of their proposed pathway to 2050. And to the best that we understand it’s essentially relying on carbon capture and storage and other approaches, which have been shown not to work. So at this stage, I think it’s bordering on being a scam, frankly.”
But it’s being seen by some, including Australian businesses, as a step in the right direction, at the every least.
Australia’s Business Council congratulated the government on its plan to “make sure that Australians are winners in this change” and celebrated the focus on technology.
“Big investments in skills, new technologies like hydrogen and critical minerals will be crucial to positioning Australia to take advantage of new markets and opportunities in a low emissions world,” chief executive Jennifer Westacott said in a statement.
The Minerals Council, which represents the country’s miners said, it gave certainty “over the medium to long term for the Australian mining sector and its customers.”