Australian climate protesters

Australia announces net-zero 2050 goal; no legislation to follow

Image credit: REUTERS/Melanie Burton/File Photo

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that Australia, one of the world’s top fossil fuel producers, will target net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, he does not intend to legislate for decarbonisation, instead hoping change will be led by individuals and technological advances.

Morrison has been under international pressure, having long refused to join other national leaders in pledging to reach net-zero emissions by the 2050 deadline ahead of COP26 in accordance with the aims of the Paris Agreement. Australia is one of the world’s biggest CO2 emitters on a per capita basis.

Morrison has been in a quandary over climate policy, reluctant to upset rural voters opposing the phase-out of polluting industries ahead of next year’s election. The Australian Liberal Party also faces resistance within government; its coalition partner, the National Party, has a core voter base centred on agriculture and mining.

In announcing the target, Morrison downplayed the potential for economic disruption and job losses: “Australians want action on climate change,” he told media in Canberra. “They’re taking action on climate change, but they also want to protect their jobs and their livelihoods. They also want to keep the costs of living down.

“I also want to protect the Australian way of life, especially in rural and regional areas. The Australian way of life is unique.”

Instead, Morrison has emphasised technology as a solution to CO2 emissions, describing his plan as being about “technology not taxes”. He said that Australia will largely achieve its net-zero 2050 target through technological development such as green hydrogen, energy storage, low-emissions steelmaking, and carbon capture and storage, with the government investing AUS$20bn to support their development and adoption. The government say this will unlock AUS$60-100bn of additional investment from the private sector and state governments.

He intends for a third of abatement to come from cuts via these “technology breakthroughs” and unspecified global trends (likely a reference to falling costs of green technologies with wider adoption), while a further fifth will result from offsets (mostly based on so-far non-existent technology such as low-emissions cement and feed supplements). The government has not yet published modelling underpinning the plan and will not introduce any new legislation to support it.

Morrison declined to strengthen Australia’s medium-term target of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. Citing new energy department figures, he said the country is on track to reduce emissions by 30-35 per cent; this has been attributed to take-up of rooftop solar, improved energy efficiency, and land use reforms.

The announcement was criticised by the opposition and by environmental groups for its relative weakness, reliance on unproven technology, lack of detailed strategy, and short-termism with regards to the changing global economy.

Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, commented: “Unless the government sets the wheels in motion to cut our emissions in half by 2030, it is making climate change worse and turning its back on the opportunities. Australia cannot keep relying on coal and gas exports because these industries are on the way out and if those workers are not helped with the transition, they will be left high and dry.”

The Australian Labor Party described the announcement as a “scam” that lacks substance. Leader of the opposition Anthony Albanese said: “We haven’t seen the modelling, and we haven’t had the detail. Because there is net-zero modelling, net-zero legislation, and net-zero unity […] in their own words there is nothing new in this plan. The word plan doesn’t constitute a plan no matter how often he said [it] and what form it’s printed.”

Meanwhile in the UK, Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at London School of Economics, is to make the case that decarbonisation is possible while maintaining economic growth.

“The drive for net-zero emissions will result in the biggest and most fundamental transformation in the global economy that has ever occurred during peacetime,” he will say during a speech. “This will not be a narrow horse race between economic growth and decarbonisation. The new and cleaner investment and innovation can drive sustainable, resilient, and inclusive growth.”

“This growth will be more resource-efficient, more productive and healthier, and will offer greater protection to our biodiversity. The new challenge is how to foster greater innovation and creativity, and to recognise and create the key mechanisms and dynamics of change.”

The speech comes a week after the Treasury published a report finding inaction would be more costly than investing in decarbonisation.

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