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While Joe Biden looks set to double America’s emissions reduction target at a meeting of world leaders next week, Australia’s ‘gas-fired recovery’ sees it increasingly isolated. By Mike Seccombe.

US climate summit to be a reckoning for Morrison

US president Joe Biden.
Credit: Joshua Roberts / Getty Images

Just months after the Coalition dumped Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, went on Sydney radio to pour scorn on international efforts to prevent catastrophic global warming.

It was October 8, 2018, and a new report had just come out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying nations must greatly increase their efforts if the world were to avoid warming of 1.5 degrees.

Morrison was challenged by radio host Alan Jones to do as United States President Donald Trump had done and just “rip up” Australia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

There was no need to do that, Morrison replied, because Australia was not bound to act in response to such calls. “Nor are we bound to go and tip money into that big climate fund; we’re not going to do that either. So, I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that sort of nonsense,” the prime minister said.

Morrison’s announcement that he would stop contributing to the Green Climate Fund – to which Australia had pledged $200 million to assist smaller nations with the transition away from fossil fuels – came as a complete surprise to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And it was an immense disappointment to our Pacific neighbours.

But Morrison was intent on copying Trump.

While Australia did stay in the Paris Agreement, our government continued to treat calls for greater action with disdain. In October 2019, for example, Morrison skipped a climate summit at the United Nations, even though he was in New York at the time.

Behaviour such as this has seen Morrison similarly regarded with disdain by countries taking the climate fight seriously. Notably at last December’s Climate Ambition Summit sponsored by the British Johnson government, our prime minister was denied a speaking slot on the basis that he had no increased ambition to speak about.

But things have changed a lot in the two-and-a-half years since Morrison dismissed climate summiteering as “nonsense” – and have changed even more since the election of the Biden administration in the US.

As the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, told a media conference in India last week, climate change now is seen around the world as being so “critical that it translates into votes”.

“And in America in the last election it did translate into votes,” he said.

After Trump was swept from power, Joe Biden entered the presidency with an enormously detailed plan for climate change. It included stopping all subsidies to fossil fuels, a massive rollout of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, generating 100 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2035, more energy-efficient buildings, new climate risk reporting standards for business and industry and much more.

The new US administration’s ambition did not stop at America’s borders.

Biden promised that within his first 100 days in office, he would “convene a climate world summit to directly engage the leaders of the major greenhouse gas-emitting nations of the world to persuade them to join the United States in making more ambitious national pledges, above and beyond the commitments they have already made”.

That two-day summit will take place next week, beginning on Earth Day, April 22, and will involve 40 nations, which collectively account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In the lead-up to the summit, special envoy Kerry has been engaged in a whirlwind round of negotiations, fixed on encouraging, cajoling and, where necessary, helping facilitate finance to get other nations to lift their climate change ambitions.

At his press conference in India, Kerry told the assembled media he had spoken with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about putting together a consortium of nations and private investors to fund India’s shift to renewables.

“I’m not going to name them because it’s up to them to decide to do that, but I can tell you there are some in Europe, there are some in our continent, who are prepared to try to be helpful,” he said.

Kerry noted that during the Obama presidency, the US had committed $3 billion to the green climate fund but had only delivered a third of that before the Trump administration abandoned it. Doing so, Kerry said, had “shot America’s credibility in the head”.

The climate envoy said Biden was intent on putting back “the $2 billion that was owed, but also he’s going to make his own payment … he will put in additional money.”

Kerry’s words hint at the size and scope of US ambition – and at Australia’s lack of credibility in climate matters, too, for this was the same fund about which Morrison boasted to Jones of withdrawing support.

Australia’s reputation as a climate laggard is in danger of being further reinforced at Biden’s virtual Earth Day summit. Other nations, including our key trading partners, are set to commit to more ambitious new measures to combat global warming.

The US will lead by example, almost doubling its greenhouse gas reduction target from the current 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The exact number is yet to be announced, but is flagged to be in the range of 45 to 50 per cent by 2030, on the way to net zero by 2050.

Japan, which ranks second behind China in two-way trade with Australia and which is the biggest market for our coal as well as a big financier of fossil fuels, is another country to watch, says Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics, a firm which monitors global climate efforts.

Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, will be in Washington for meetings on a range of issues, Hare says, “and I think it’s very possible he will announce a [national determined contribution]” at the summit.

“They will be pushed to match whatever the US comes up with,” Hare says. “I would guess somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 per cent [reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2030].”

This would be a huge shift. Japan now is among the lowest achievers in terms of emissions reduction among advanced economies.

South Korea, another of Australia’s top trading partners and fossil fuel markets, is also moving towards matching the US commitment, according to Hare. Although it may delay a formal announcement until June when it – along with Australia and India – have been invited to attend as extra parties to the upcoming G7 meeting.

“Canada is another one,” Hare says. “They almost certainly are going to announce a new reduction target by the 22nd.”

Also at the meeting will be a number of others that already have set in place very aggressive climate targets during the past year.

The European Union’s current target is a 55 per cent reduction by 2030 – and there is internal discussion about lifting this to 60 per cent. Britain’s emissions already are 51 per cent below what they were in 1990, and it is shooting for 68 per cent by 2030.

As for Australia, our target, 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, is unchanged since it was agreed at Paris in 2015.

The Morrison government continues to insist Australia will meet this target “in a canter”, but independent analysts say this isn’t likely. And the government’s determination to foster more fossil fuel mining, particularly gas extraction, will make the task harder.

Furthermore, the Australian government is one of a rapidly dwindling minority of national governments that have not committed to net zero by 2050.

To date, some 120 other countries have made the pledge, as have all Australian states and territories, as well as many big financial institutions and other businesses.

However, the Morrison government is internally divided and has resisted making a firm commitment. There is significant tension between conservatives who strongly oppose stronger action – particularly in the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals – and moderate Liberals who support net zero.

Instead, the prime minister has adopted words intended to placate both sides, but which actually promise nothing: “Our goal is to reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050.”

In recent months, there has been growing speculation that the Morrison government realises this is an untenable position now that its big ally in inaction, Trump, is gone.

But on Tuesday this week, The Australian cited a spokesman for Energy and Emissions Reduction minister Angus Taylor saying the government would set out its emissions reduction plans ahead of the next United Nations Climate Conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November. There was no indication of imminent change.

It might help Australia’s image a little if Morrison turned up to the Biden summit with a net-zero 2050 commitment, says Martijn Wilder, founding partner of the multinational climate consultancy, the Pollination Group.

But that would not mean much without a more ambitious 2030 target, he says.

The Biden summit is shaping up as being embarrassing for Morrison.

“Biden has been smart enough to expand the remit to bring in more climate champions, and more climate-conscious voices,” says Richie Merzian, a former government climate change negotiator and current climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute.

“He’s got Denmark coming, Sweden coming – outstanding leaders – as well as the likes of the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh, some African nations, countries that are clearly on the front line of climate impacts. And also, some other outspoken voices, like Bill Gates,” Merzian says.

“You’re going to see a lot of our allies, our traditional allies, target our major source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Pressure has been mounting ahead of the Biden summit, particularly about Australia’s reliance on, and championing of, coal. In February, in a conversation with former US vice-president and climate activist Al Gore, Kerry called for an accelerated exit from coal-fired power and spoke of “differences” with Australia.

“Last month, the IEA [International Energy Agency] had a net-zero summit,” Merzian says. “John Kerry spoke at it, so did the UK and EU [representatives] and all three took aim at coal.”

At the IEA summit, Kerry said the world had a decade to largely decarbonise. If that does not happen by 2030, mid-century goals would be “irrelevant”.

“We’re heading for over 4 degrees [global warming], we’re not on course and the time for discussion is over,” Kerry said.

Recent evidence suggests the Morrison government is adopting a slightly more conciliatory approach. In an interview with Nine newspapers this week, Arthur Sinodinos, Australia’s ambassador to the US, acknowledged the need to repair Australia’s international reputation, and said he’d told Kerry that Australia wanted to “work closely with the US to promote global investment in low-carbon technologies”.

Sinodinos also argued that despite the “argy-bargy” of domestic politics, Australia had significant achievements to point to.

And to some extent he’s right. Australia does have structures in place to promote clean energy – the Renewable Energy Agency and Clean Energy Finance Corporation. We do have the world’s highest penetration of rooftop solar. Large-scale wind, solar and storage projects are proliferating. And there is a deep well of expertise, both in the government and non-government sectors.

What Australia has lacked, says Tim Buckley of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, is the political will to move away from fossil fuels.

Governments – state and federal – continue to approve new coalmines. And then there is the growing problem of gas.

The Morrison government remains committed to a “gas-fired recovery” and to subsidising new gas mining. More than $220 million has been committed to opening up the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory. This is despite the weight of expert analysis that has determined the basin to be unnecessary and unsustainably expensive – as the ABC’s Four Corners program detailed this week.

The government’s gas ambitions will also be immensely damaging to the climate. Buckley cites the government’s own figures, showing Australia’s emissions of methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – went up 500 per cent, from three million tonnes in 2015 to 16 million tonnes in 2019. “And is expected to grow by a further 50 per cent by 2030,” he says.

This stands in stark contrast, Buckley says, with what Biden is doing in the US.

“He’s going to bring in a social cost of carbon immediately. He’s ceasing all fossil fuel subsidies with immediate effect. He’s talking about ceasing all external fossil fuel financing by the American government globally. He’s just extended a 30 per cent investment tax credit on wind, solar and batteries for a decade – with bipartisan support,” says Buckley.

The scope of Biden’s climate ambitions – as set out in his January 27 executive order “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” – is “just mind-blowing”, says Martijn Wilder.

It harnesses every agency within the US government to the climate cause, including defence, labour, commerce and the treasury.

Equally importantly, Wilder says the Biden administration, and other countries, “are going to heavily push financial obligations on companies to disclose their climate risk”.

The plan is also to vastly increase financial support for renewables around the world and away from fossil fuels.

This doesn’t just mean more government donations to help poor nations transition, says Bill Hare, although he suggests Australia could win back some credibility by rejoining the Green Climate Fund.

“It means finding ways of using government to lever the private sector to move faster. I think that’s going to be very relevant to actually getting a deal this year.

“There will be pressure on development banks who are not yet in line, to align with the Paris Agreement.

“The European Investment Bank has. The Asian Development Bank is going through a policy change now, and others are also. These institutions could provide a lot of leverage.

“It means a transformation of the financial system, backed by government through investment guarantees and export guarantees, et cetera,” says Hare.

The signs are that it is already happening. Buckley, who advises financial institutions, can cite innumerable examples: BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, now is steering clients away from fossil fuel investments; Australia’s major banks are now not only committed to net-zero targets, but actively strategising on how to meet them.

“Things are moving so fast it’s hard to keep up,” he says. “Bank of America on Friday announced a $1 trillion commitment to sustainable finance by 2030,” he says.

“They were the No. 4 financier of fossil fuels in the world in the last five years, and they’ve just committed a trillion dollars to low-carbon investment. Just as Biden is convening his summit. It’s no coincidence.”

In summary, big change is afoot. While the world has a long way to go if it is to avoid climate catastrophe, momentum is building fast.

And the weights are heavily on our government to get on board.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "US climate summit to be a reckoning for Morrison".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.