The Outlier Image Credit: Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

The Outlier

Morrison’s world-defying climate stance

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This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 12: Feeling the Heat. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

Decision time

Morrison’s determination to stick to Australia’s weak, increasingly implausible 2030 target came under serious pressure at President Biden’s climate summit in April. Morrison’s argument of “how” not “when” Australia gets to net zero missed the point. For Biden, it is a question of when as well as how. This is not just about the climate science. The United States sees itself in a race against China for clean energy supremacy in the net-zero emissions world. Secretary of state Antony Blinken made this clear shortly before the Biden summit. “It’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution,” he told reporters. “Right now, we’re falling behind. China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles. It holds nearly a third of the world’s renewable energy patents. If we don’t catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we’ll lose out on countless jobs for the American people.”

Biden, like the Europeans, wants to spend big to back the rapid shift to clean energy. US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm underscored the new urgency in Washington when she announced at the summit a US goal to slash the cost of “clean renewable hydrogen” by 80 per cent by 2030, making it competitive with natural gas.

Australia risks being overrun in this clean energy race. If green hydrogen becomes competitive with natural gas by the end of the decade, the oil and gas industry will react by slashing prices, and Australian liquified natural gas prices will plummet. As Forrest put it colourfully in his Boyer lecture, the result will be “like a knife fight in a telephone box”.

For now, the Morrison government is making a strategic bet that the energy transformation won’t happen this fast. It does not believe that China, let alone India, will be able to radically shift course this decade. This will put the 1.5 Celsius plans out of reach and curb the enthusiasm in developed countries for ambitious targets to cut emissions. The message from Canberra is that Australia’s big exports of liquified natural gas and coal will continue for decades to come.

The latest International Energy Agency review gives some comfort for this view. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge again in 2021, the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of the pandemic’s decline. This year’s expected rise in coal use dwarfs that of renewables. Some 80 per cent of the projected growth in coal demand is expected to come from Asia, led by China. As IEA chief Fatih Birol put it, “we remain on a path of dangerous levels of global warming”.

Labor’s muted response … has reinforced the view in the government that its current policy is the right course

But the IEA also released its own roadmap in May, warning that if the world wanted to keep to the 1.5 Celsius goal, there could be no new oil and gas fields approved for development beyond 2021, and no new coalmines or mine extensions. The IEA roadmap, “Net Zero by 2050”, flew in the face of both Labor and Coalition support for new fossil fuel developments.

Labor’s muted response to the Biden summit and the 1.5-degree goal has reinforced the view in the government that its current policy is the right course politically. But outside Australia, there is a growing belief that China’s clean energy transition will speed up, due to its capacity for innovation and its need to compete with the United States. Former Australian diplomat Dean Bialek, who is now advising the United Kingdom on preparations for COP26, believes there is a chance that China will bring more to Glasgow than Xi’s net zero by 2060 pledge. “I think the Chinese could do it if they wanted. I think their current policy positions are intended to leave a bit of negotiating room this year. Both on the net zero timeline but also in terms of where they can get to by 2030,” said Bialek. “And indeed whether they could potentially look at bringing forward the current target on peaking of emissions – which is currently expressed as ‘around 2030’ – to a much earlier date, to 2025, is one that has been bandied around.”

The need for China, India and other big emitters in the developing world to ramp up their ambition in Glasgow explains why the United States and Britain are so exercised about Australia’s 2030 target. As a rich developed country with abundant renewable resources, Australia’s weak target will give diplomatic succour to other carbon-intensive economies wanting to slow the pace of change, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

This is a 792 word extract of a 5706 word essay by Marian Wilkinson. Get your copy of AFA12: Feeling the Heat to read the complete piece, along with contributions from Amanda McKenzie, Wesley Morgan, Richard Denniss and Allan Behm. 

AFA12 Feeling the Heat cover image

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 12: Feeling the Heat. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.