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Hosting a global climate summit this week, Joe Biden plans to reduce US emissions by more than 50 per cent by 2030. Scott Morrison’s focus on unproven technology, experts warn, will not achieve our climate goals. By Max Opray.

Morrison off target on climate

Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Star Scientific, a hydrogen research facility on the NSW Central Coast, on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

The ballroom full of executives at Sydney’s Fullerton Hotel had already drunk dry the reserves of Peter Lehmann shiraz when the evening’s headline speaker, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, ventured a bold declaration on carbon emissions.

“We’re not going to achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities,” he told the Business Council of Australia’s yearly dinner on Monday. Rather, Morrison said, it is “the factories of our regional towns and outer suburbs” that will drive Australia’s emissions reduction efforts.

The speech contained no new climate commitments, but the shift in rhetoric nevertheless sparked considerable excitement in the media that Australia was set to ramp up its climate ambitions.

Morrison’s pronouncement came as other world leaders were preparing to strengthen their countries’ targets at United States President Joe Biden’s Earth Day climate summit, further isolating Australia as a climate outlier.

The prime minister’s evolving language to the BCA was seen as preparing his base for a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. But if the prime minister was indeed readying the right-wing climate change deniers in his party, emissions reduction experts are already pre-empting any shift with a warning that a long-distant target alone is not sufficient.

“Net zero by 2050 is easy to say,” Climate Council spokesperson Andrew Stock tells The Saturday Paper. “But without interim targets that are meaningful and met, it’s almost worthless. It’s just words.”

Stock says interim goals need to be set in time frames that are politically meaningful – as soon as 2025 – and consistent with climate science.

The Climate Council recommends that Australia pursue a 75 per cent emissions cut by 2030 to play its part in keeping the world within 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming.

For evidence of how easy it is to sidestep long-term targets, the behaviour of state governments is instructive.

A day before his BCA speech, Morrison had been in Adelaide to unveil a $1 billion energy deal with the South Australian government that included a mandated target of an additional 50 petajoules of gas a year by the end of 2023.

“Australians ... want to ensure we are doing everything we responsibly can to combat climate change,” Morrison said of the deal. “This means getting more gas into the market.”

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor added that the deal would reduce energy prices and “prevent forecast shortfalls in the broader east coast gas market from 2023, as part of our gas-fired recovery”.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall was keen to stress the greener aspects of the deal, including support for electric vehicle infrastructure and hydrogen exports.

This is because Marshall leads a state with some of the most ambitious climate targets in Australia. South Australia is committed to a 50  per cent cut to emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Yet he had nevertheless committed to the gas objective and a “stretch goal” of 80 petajoules a year by 2030.

The arrangement bore striking similarities to a $2 billion energy infrastructure funding deal Morrison struck with the New South Wales government in January. That agreement included a target of an additional 70 petajoules of gas by 2022, despite NSW’s own commitment to net zero by 2050.

The Northern Territory government has the same net-zero goal, yet welcomed $173 million more in federal government funding to frack the Beetaloo Basin.

Rachel Walmsley, the head of policy and law reform at the Environmental Defenders Office, says a key issue with emissions targets in Australia is that they are typically enshrined in policy rather than in law.

“Without the legal mechanisms in place, the targets are aspirational, which leaves wriggle room for businesses or governments to invest in fossil fuels,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

Walmsley points to independent MP Zali Steggall’s proposal for legally enshrined five-year carbon budgets, based on the approach taken by Britain, as an example of what’s necessary to ensure any federal target in Australia is meaningful.

The Morrison government’s argument for more gas is that it’s the transition fuel Australia needs as the country weans itself off coal.

Andrew Stock, who has previously served on energy committees advising the SA government, is scathing of the inclusion of gas targets in the SA and NSW energy deals.

He argues that the fossil fuel’s role in firming for renewable energy grids should be on the decline, not ramping up.

“You can’t increase gas like that and realistically believe in net zero by 2050, it just doesn’t compute,” he says. “The Commonwealth is potentially holding out financial carrots on what they want to see happen, so the price for states is to swallow gas deals they don’t necessarily want.”

The federal government would not confirm to The Saturday Paper whether it had insisted on the gas targets for South Australia, with a spokesperson for Taylor noting only that they had been “subject to negotiation”.

Stock notes that federal justifications for including gas in last weekend’s deal to improve energy affordability flew in the face of the trend of energy prices falling in South Australia as more renewables come online.

“South Australia now consistently has the lowest wholesale prices in the national energy market due to renewables,” he says.

Another controversial element of the SA energy deal was the inclusion of carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions within the scope of a $400 million fund for the state to invest in clean energy.

That was followed up by Morrison’s announcement on Wednesday of $539.2 million in national funding for CCS and hydrogen projects.

CCS has long been touted as a solution for coal and gas emissions, but there are limited commercially viable examples.

For its part, hydrogen can be produced through wind and solar but the Morrison government has been exploring ways to incorporate coal and gas into the hydrogen production mix.

Anna Malos, policy manager at the Melbourne-based think tank ClimateWorks Australia, says her organisation’s analysis indicates that while there will likely be niche applications for CCS technology in industry, renewable energy alternatives are the cheapest way to cut emissions.

“What’s clear is if the target is net zero by 2050, unless there’s dramatic change in all sorts of technology and CCS is completely nailed, then fossil fuels are substantially out of the energy mix – particularly thermal coal,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

A Climate Analytics assessment found coal for electricity needs to be phased out globally by 2040 to achieve the Paris climate accord aspiration of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Malos rejected the idea that Australia should choose between a target-based approach and investing in technology, arguing it is a case of “all of the above”.

“Setting the target is incredibly important, especially for businesses and investors,” she says. “They see the end goal, and there are lots of decisions to be made now for the decades ahead.”

Malos points to how Britain is complementing emissions targets with a detailed sector-by-sector implementation road map that identifies what needs to be invested in and what rules need to be in place.

“A 2050 target is great but the risk is people feel it’s a long way away when it’s not. You need to start now – if you’re building a road today, it will be used for decades,” she says. “So will it be used by electric vehicles? Alternatively, if you’re constructing buildings, you need to make sure they’re not built to rely on gas, and that residents have access to public transport.”

Britain is also increasing the ambition of its targets. In the lead-up to the Earth Day climate summit, Boris Johnson, the country’s conservative prime minister, announced a plan to cut the country’s carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035.

Biden meanwhile aspires to more than halve US emissions by 2030, framing his message around how climate action will lead to a jobs boom.

It’s a playbook being emulated by federal Labor in Australia. The party organised a clean energy summit in Canberra on Tuesday, at which Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese outlined via video link how he would use his proposed $15 billion national reconstruction fund to expand manufacturing and export industries to supply clean energy products and materials.

“I’m talking about a revolution in jobs growth right across the Australian economy based on one inescapable fact – renewable energy is not only clean but cheap. And getting cheaper,” he said.

Cautious about bleeding votes in mining regions, such as in NSW’s Upper Hunter state byelection set for May, Labor has been agnostic about the future of coal, however.

The party’s new Resources spokesperson, Madeleine King, on Monday told The Australian she believes Australia will continue exporting coal beyond 2050.

Interestingly, a recent poll by The Australia Institute found 57.4 per cent of sampled Upper Hunter voters support former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s call for a moratorium on new coalmine approvals.

Perhaps Morrison is right after all. Leadership on cutting emissions won’t come from the wine-swilling elites at inner-city dinner parties – such as the one he attended on Monday night.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Off target".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.