Opinion

John Hewson
Morrison must tell the truth on climate

An earthquake is defined as what happens when two blocks of the Earth suddenly slip past one another. This happened in Victoria 10 days ago. Something similar happened two days later in the political discourse, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg publicly supported an emissions reductions target of net zero by 2050. Indeed, it has been put to me that the significance of the political shift is so great that one event might have been the aftershock of the other.

Frydenberg’s embracing of the target was more out of personal interest than the national interest, however. There has been recent evidence of a significant climate movement gaining momentum in his seat of Kooyong, threatening to challenge him by running a high-profile candidate on climate at the next election.

It should be recalled that Frydenberg was challenged at the last election by Oliver Yates, a former chief executive of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, but the challenge was muted by a second high-profile candidate, barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside, running at the same time. This effectively split the protest vote, allowing Frydenberg to survive. I suspect emotions are running higher this time, and that he’s feeling it.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, on the other hand, has been dithering around the climate issue in the process of making a comeback to the leadership. The National Party remains fundamentally divided on climate. On one side are those who are basically still climate deniers, together with those who want to suck up to the fossil fuel lobby for financial support. On the other are those who value unity within the Coalition on the bigger issues, along with those who can see the very real regional opportunities for their party in an effective transition to a low-carbon Australia. Which camp Joyce occupies depends on the day of the week.

Scott Morrison’s strategy has been to try to deal with his leadership deficit by creating an illusion that he’s fighting to drag his parties to a net-zero commitment. He has been under significant global and domestic pressure to do this, to be able to announce it in relation to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), to be held in Glasgow in November. Hence he has used a host of weasel words to create the impression that he is moving closer and closer to a firm commitment. He began by saying that “of course he wanted to achieve net zero as soon as possible”, which in recent days has become that he “would like to achieve such a target, preferably by 2050”.

Morrison has deliberately sought to muddy the waters here, with his international comments downplaying the need for targets and suggesting the focus should be on the policies to achieve desired outcomes. This has to be pretty much tongue in cheek: he has neither a commitment to a target nor the policies to make an effective transition.

A major weakness in this strategy is that he has given Joyce and some of the more vocal Nats, such as Matt Canavan, the time to run amok. This has also given them the scope to try to extract a “price for agreeing” when realistically they have had very little room to do otherwise.

Joyce tried to get a commitment to no loss of coal jobs and so on. However, all this did was reveal his ignorance of the nature of the climate challenge and its opportunities – especially regional opportunities. It’s not about “job losses” but effective and fair jobs and community transitions. So much of an effective transition is about regional development, opportunities to turn all forms of waste – be they household, industrial, farm or animal – into electricity and fuels, with “regenerative agriculture” able to achieve net negative emissions and be financially beneficial to farmers.

By world standards, in terms of coalition governments, the Nationals carry a disproportionate influence in the Morrison government. They have relied on the long-held myth that the country owes its prosperity to farmers. More recently, they’ve added miners, reflecting the reality of our dependence on China. Yet, surprisingly, the Nats soon turn on China in relation to global warming.

Indeed, they mount the case that it’s pointless us doing anything about emissions when China is such a big emitter. This tired argument is merely an excuse for consistently doing nothing and taking no position. It deliberately ignores just how much the Chinese are actually doing in response to the climate challenge – such as pricing carbon in major industrial centres, accelerating the electrification of the vehicle fleet, and moving beyond coal. Most recently, China has committed to pulling back on its investments in new coal-fired power projects in the developing world, under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Basically, the Nats have lost touch with their constituencies. While they pretend to represent the interests of miners and farmers, both these groups have been calling for strong government leadership on climate for years. The National Farmers’ Federation, and most other farm groups, for example, have already committed to net-zero emissions. The big miners, such as BHP and Rio Tinto, have declared their intention to move away from thermal coal and have called for a decisive government lead. All our states and territories have already committed to net zero by 2050. The New South Wales government is leading the way on this, having announced a 2030 target to reduce emissions by 50 per cent.

Some Nationals, including Canavan and George Christensen, continue to prove to the world just how far out of touch they are in wanting new coal-fired power stations. A particular focus has been a new coal-fired power station for north Queensland. This completely ignores reality, as there is no net demand for additional power in north Queensland, and renewables, especially solar and wind, are much cheaper. Moreover, international and domestic banks won’t finance it and global insurers won’t insure it.

The bottom line of all this is that Morrison has made a mess of the discussion, attempting to defend the indefensible, misquoting data and exaggerating his cuts to emissions. The “success” he claims under the Kyoto Protocol was due to our slack target and the treatment of land-clearing. He will not admit the genuine success of Julia Gillard’s carbon-pricing. Nor will he acknowledge that its abolition failed to deliver the promised cut in electricity prices.

There is blatant hypocrisy in Morrison’s rejection of carbon-pricing while at the same time supporting the Direct Action plan, where government revenues are used to buy emissions reductions. Surely Direct Action puts an implicit price on carbon?

It is also unfortunate that in hinting at a net-zero 2050 objective, Morrison is ignoring the reality of such a commitment. The focus on a 2050 target is itself misleading when the attention should be on a carbon budget that recognises that emissions accumulate. Basically, the budget expresses a limit of cumulative emissions to achieve the Paris soft objective of 2 degrees Celsius of warming and the aspirational objective of 1.5 degrees warming.

Morrison acts as if he can stick with our Paris commitments to cut emissions by a meagre 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Actually, as the Climate Targets Panel showed in its recent report – disclosure: I am a member, along with Will Steffen, Lesley Hughes and Malte Meinshausen – the achievement of the government’s 2030 target would be inadequate to get to net zero by 2050. The 2030 target would need to be a reduction of more than 50 to 60 per cent off a 2005 base if the subsequent target is to be reached. This analysis was based on the government’s carbon budget model and used the government’s data.

Some in the Coalition act as if we can wait until, say, 2049 to then move towards net zero 2050, but all evidence suggests policy adjustments have to be front-end loaded if goals are to be achieved. The analysis of our targets panel clearly demonstrated that if the reductions in emissions are inadequate by 2030, the yearly adjustments after 2030 would need to be between three and 10 times as much as achieved in the 2020s to then reach net zero by 2050.

There should be no magic to a 2050 target. Indeed, net zero by 2050 is a risky and inadequate goal, especially for wealthy nations such as Australia. It is in our national interest to achieve net zero before 2050, preferably about 2040. Our targets panel analysis also demonstrated that if the government maintains its current 2030 target, Australia would need to hit net-zero emissions by 2037 to stay within its 2 degrees Celsius carbon budget, an extremely challenging task.

Morrison is correct in arguing that a target is nothing without a plan to get there. The problem is he has neither. Morrison would claim his government’s technology-first approach is his plan, but it clearly falls short of what is needed to drive quick and deep emissions cuts. This would require a detailed transition strategy – which would require us to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power stations and rule out any new fossil fuel developments, including gas. In addition, the Morrison government should be considering national strategies for regenerative agriculture and the electrification of our vehicle fleet. It is not.

It seems Morrison has no shame at the fact Australia has ended up as one of the most significant global laggards in terms of both climate targets and climate policies. This was most certainly the case in his recent climate speech at the United Nations. The speech was basically a massive exaggeration of what the government has been doing and achieving in terms of targets and policies. It understated our global and regional responsibilities and showed no awareness of the magnitude and urgency of our climate challenge.

It should be of no surprise that we were able to better our Kyoto targets as we were one of the few countries that was able to actually increase our emissions in the first Kyoto period. The international community will generally not accept the attempt to carry forward credits from our performance relative to those Kyoto targets, and nor should it.

If the Morrison government is at all serious about a commitment to net zero, Morrison needs to begin by telling the truth about exactly where we sit relative to our carbon budget and what transition possibilities will give us the emissions reductions we need. He will not be able to get away with accounting tricks. As an economist, I have to back the most cost-effective transition strategy: putting a price on carbon and making the polluters pay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Target practice".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.