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The Monthly

Australia’s net zero ambition on climate is a global embarrassment

By Nick Feik in The Monthly

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) greet the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison as leaders arrive for the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Britain 01 November 2021. Credit: Robert Perry / EPA

Australian governments are committed to action on climate change. They have always been committed to action on climate change.

On June 30, the Liberal and National parties released a new policy document, The Climate Challenge, “detailing a framework for positive action”. And it was detailed: “The policy covers areas as diverse as research funding; the role of the CSIRO; our meteorological services; climate prediction; the promotion of the use of non-fossil fuels; energy conservation; foreign aid policies; the Antarctic; coastal zone management; human health questions; pollution control; natural disaster relief and the protection of the National Estate.” Each was broken into smaller sections with their own policy plans, and the document was backed up by the latest science. The climate challenge, it said, “demands positive action — it demands it now”.

That was June 30, 1989.

The paper was prepared by the Opposition led by Andrew Peacock, and in the following year’s election campaign he committed the Coalition to cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 per cent by the year 2000.

The Hawke government, for what it’s worth, rejected the target, stating it would “not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally”. “In terms of our global responsibilities,” Hawke said in the 1990 campaign debate, “we are out there at the forefront with other nations in doing what we can”.

Readers will no doubt find the language familiar. You’re probably thinking of this: “Australia will more than play its part to address climate change, [but] we do not have to sacrifice our economic prosperity to tackle the problem.” That was prime minister John Howard in 2007.

Howard’s environment minister was a young tyro named Malcolm Turnbull, and together, cornered by Kevin 07, they announced plans for an emissions ­cap-and-trade system that would be built with great care and rigour, because “it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities”.

Since 2013, the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison governments have had more than a dozen different energy/climate policies, but they have yet to enact a broad-based emissions reduction scheme. The latest suite of unlegislated back-of-envelope Coalition policies continues this tradition of non-commitment.

Prime Minister Morrison’s “net zero by 2050” plan involves, bizarrely, increasing gas extraction all the way up until 2050, strong continued support for coal and oil exports, and a rejection of any significant interim targets — in other words, a business-as-usual approach for the foreseeable future. Actual emissions-reduction plans are hard to discern.

In October this year, at an energy industry summit, the nominal emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor explained the logic of the government’s approach. He reiterated to his audience that it was “committed to reaching net zero”, but that it would stick to providing incentives to cut emissions rather than penalising polluters. Taylor was quite open about the intended beneficiaries of the government’s policies: the goal was to protect the “key industries” of gas, coal, heavy manufacturing and agriculture, which also happen to be the Nationals’ key political constituencies. “We don’t want to see those industries being badly damaged,” he said. “And they don’t need to be.”

Taylor’s efforts have in fact been dedicated to supporting the coal and gas industries using climate change mitigation funds. Reciting the mantra of “carrots not sticks”, or “technology not taxes”, he is leading a protection scheme for polluters: in recent years, the Coalition government has been pouring millions into “carbon capture and storage” projects of the sort that have been failing for decades, and it has been using money from its emissions reduction fund. These schemes, along with “blue hydrogen” projects and dodgy carbon-credit schemes such as those based on “avoided deforestation”, are now being used as an alibi to increase coal and gas extraction, after the government appointed fossil-fuel industry leaders to its Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee — whose purported role is to “ensure the continued integrity” of the fund.

Taylor still talks about supporting Australia’s “gas-fired recovery”, and the Morrison government has been supporting resource companies to open up dozens of new coal and gas sites at a rapid clip. Never mind that banks and insurers internationally are deserting such projects, or that they undermine our climate targets. Or that gas extraction and burning create far heavier emissions than could ever justify the commonly used “transitional technology” tag.

For the Nats, many of whom are unashamed climate denialists, “net zero by 2050” has become another opportunity to pork-barrel. And for Morrison’s Liberals, it has become a political escape hatch, an alibi for not doing anything significant during his actual term of office, or indeed even in following terms. And why bust a gut when the states are doing all the heavy lifting? Every state and territory government already has an emissions reduction program, and these combined efforts alone should ensure Australia achieves emissions reductions of around 40 per cent (on 2005 levels) by 2030; in fact, most states are shooting for at least 50 per cent by then — significantly more ambitious than the federal government’s outline. In the pantomime of federal politics, Morrison negotiated long and hard with the Nats to strike a deal; in reality, he will pay their bribes by the billion, all to sign up for a national emissions plan that is, in fact, a handbrake on everyone else’s ambitions.

While the toll of climate-change inaction is rising, along with the cost of financing fossil-fuel industries and the likelihood of international carbon border tariffs, Morrison’s focus is elsewhere: on the politics. The Coalition’s decades-long intransigence has become embarrassing even by its own standards. Australian climate denialism is now unacceptable everywhere: on the world stage, among regional neighbours, across the Australian community, even in its blue-ribbon seats. Everywhere except the boardrooms of resources companies.

Enter News Corp. Even the organisation arguably most responsible for Australia’s climate inaction has clocked the damage and unpopularity of its long-running denialism. If history is anything to go by, News Corp will walk back its position, as it always has, and will attack any proposal that threatens to put meat on the bones of the government’s latest ill-formed climate posturing. News Corp’s most prominent commentator, Andrew Bolt, ever the contrarian, was in this rare case correct: the company’s “Mission Zero” campaign was “rubbish”, intended only to provide cover for Morrison, who’d finally been pressured into a change of policy by the Glasgow climate summit.

However, News Corp’s pitch — “Green and gold: How Australia could be number one in the new global economy”, illustrated with folks in high-vis — does tell us a couple of useful things. It acknowledges that even tradies (News Corp’s preferred “everyday Australians”) disapprove of the government’s traditional do-nothing approach to climate change. It tells us that even News Corp realises how regressive it is for the government to be neglecting Australia’s opportunities for renewables industries, green manufacturing and electric cars, and how vulnerable this leaves News Corp’s preferred government.

So, in an inspired piece of green-washing, after two decades of attacking “alarmist” scientists and “reckless” targets, it seems that renewable energy and the new ­economy are suddenly part and parcel of being a dinky-di News Corp–supporting Aussie. Just don’t read the fine print.

Morrison couldn’t have spun it better himself. In a campaign that landed three weeks after his private meeting with the global head of News Corp, the largest media organisation in the country picked up Labor’s pitch to Queensland working blokes and handed it straight to a prime minister who needs only to utter the slogan “net zero” in return. Congratulations to everyone involved.

The Australian public is broadly committed to action on climate change. It always has been. Yet the last time a federal Liberal or National party leader showed leadership on the issue, the Berlin Wall separated communist East Germany from the West, Nelson Mandela was a prisoner in a South African jail, and the World Wide Web was an idea written on a piece of paper.

No federal Coalition government has ever done anything that reduced real emissions nationwide. Only a fool would believe Morrison or Barnaby Joyce this time. Nevertheless, the shift is inevitable due to advances in solar, wind, battery technology, green hydrogen and electric vehicles, as well as coal and gas import bans, trade tariffs, and rising insurance and finance costs for gas and coalmining. The change will happen despite the promises, lies, obfuscations and obstructions of the Coalition. Maintain your rage.

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Originally published in the November issue of The Monthly.

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