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  • Michael Yue

Australia's Latest Plans for Climate Change

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

On November 4, 2016, Australia and 174 other countries entered the Paris Climate Accords in order to curb climate change and cool the global temperature to a 1.5°C rise since pre-Industrial times. As part of the agreement, every country was required to submit a climate action plan to increase their Nationally Determined Contribution (or NDCs) every five years, detailing how their government would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ahead of the G20 summit and the annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 26), Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison unveiled his country's first NDC on October 26, 2021. Calling it "uniquely Australian," Morrison pledged the country would reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

While the headline of the plan sounded bold, many have criticized its lack of detail and ambition. Australia’s NDC rarely talks about substantive policy actions. It mainly speculates about investing and using up-and-coming technologies that could help Australia's climate change crisis, such as clean hydrogen gas or ultra-low-cost solar panels. Australia has not fully committed to setting any policies that would promote these technologies. Although it suggests promoting electric vehicle usage, the government has yet to set a deadline to phase out gas-powered car sales. The net-zero target for 2050 seemed to be the only new addition to their plan. Still, Australia had trouble committing to a net-zero goal prior to the plan, and Morrison stated the net-zero goal would not be reflected in legislation. The plan also restated Australia’s recommitment to their 2030 goal of a 26 to 28 percent reduction in emissions, but this goal has not changed since it was declared in 2015.

Photo Courtesy: Reuters

These sort of half-hearted intentions are common throughout Australia’s NDC and left many disappointed, especially when it came to the proposed targets. While Morrison felt confident that Australia would reach both their 2030 and 2050 goals after declaring the country had “met and beaten” their 2020 goals, experts say their current policies and models do not match up with the plan’s 2050 net-zero target. Both the United States and the United Kingdom, Australia's current strategic partners, have increased their pledges to further cut greenhouse gas emissions or rely on sustainable energy. They have both criticized Australia for its weak plan. The US's Deputy Envoy for Climate Change stated, "Australia could be much more aggressive" and wanted to see Australia "step forward with a stronger effort." The U.K.'s Climate Change advisor called Australia’s plan unrealistic, saying Morrison’s plan has “no indication...that he’s got a proper program for [the 2050 goal].”

Morrison's reluctance to enact more robust measures or higher targets could come from Australia's continued dependence on fossil fuels. Coal has been a critical part of Australia's economy. The country is still looking to build more coal power plants in the future, eventually looking to continue exports of coal and gas well beyond 2050. Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions from coal globally, and the current government policy may keep it that way. On September 6, Australia's Minister for Resources, Keith Pitt, proudly stated the country would remain exporting coal beyond the 2030 deadline, saying it was “a “significant contributor” to the Australian economy. Morrison’s emissions reductions minister, Angus Taylor, reaffirmed this at COP 26 on November 4, refusing to join countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Indonesia in phasing out coal power within the following year. Even Australia's main trading partners of coal, China and Japan, have planned ambitious targets for 2030 and expect to turn to more clean energy sources.

However, Australia’s rationale to keep coal production only goes so far. Australia has some of the strongest wind and solar resources, including a mining industry rich with lithium, nickel, and hydrogen, which are in high demand for battery production and renewable energy. These alternative options have taken much of the heft out of the government's pro-coal justification. A former climate diplomat of Australia has criticized the Australian government for “trying to push Australia backward while the world moves forward.”

The country's recent experiences have exacerbated concerns over Australia's fossil fuel reliance with some of the worst effects of climate change. Rapidly spreading bushfires in early 2020 burned much of the Australian outback, where some estimate it raised as much smoke and ash as a volcanic eruption and killed 3 billion animals. While many areas in Australia are still recovering, experts say that Australia is to experience more intense and frequent bushfires in the near future. Morrison’s actions during the bushfires came under intense scrutiny, as his delay in taking action made citizens furious and caused his approval rate to drop to 41%. Experts say that a 2°C increase would also result in the complete loss of coral reefs, widespread droughts, and rising sea levels in major Australian cities. They recommend a 60% reduction in emissions in 2030 to be on track for the 1.5°C goals. Yet Morrison seems unwilling to make any major changes to the country’s climate policy, despite the urgency and danger for Australia.

Morrison was not even planning to come to COP 26 after announcing his latest climate plan, but after political pressure from allies like the U.S. and U.K., he reversed his decision. It would have also been politically advantageous for Morrison to attend, as the bushfires of 2020 have made climate change a more important issue to many Australian voters. With a federal election set for next year, Morrison's decision to attend may have been a domestic political calculation to align with voter interests while not committing to anything new for Australia.

However, Morrison’s appearance at COP 26 seemed to have the opposite effect on the Australian electorate. Out of the G20 nations present at the conference, Australia was exposed as the only country committing a net-zero effort while not actively pursuing that effort in its policies. Many leaders even referred to Australia as the weakest link in the developed world. At the conference in Glasgow, activists stated that Australia’s plan was “devoid of any strategy, policy or idea on fossil fuels, energy or transport.” At the conference, Australia seemed to be part of a group of countries known for their hostility to climate policy, such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Russia; all of these states lobbied to slow the transition. Although Australia reluctantly agreed to sign onto the final conference agreement for stronger emission reduction commitments for 2030, the government has made clear it has no intention to update any target. As Morrison and his Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, declared, they are “happy” with their targets.

With pressure building in the international community and at home, Morrison’s climate change agenda is caught in a tug of war between accommodating fossil fuel businesses and pressure from voters and diplomats to enact stronger targets. As Australia continues to lag behind its emission commitments, Morrison must quickly figure out how to navigate these political pushes and pulls before time runs out.

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