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Australia, a climate laggard, leans toward 2050 net-zero target as election looms

A koala perches on the branch of a eucalyptus tree in January 2020 after fires tore through Kangaroo Island, South Australia. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

SYDNEY — Scott Morrison strode to the podium holding a dark clump the size of a cabbage.

“This is coal,” Morrison, then treasurer of the country, told his fellow Australian lawmakers, waving it in the air to taunt his opponents. “Don’t be afraid.”

The incident in early 2017 cemented Morrison’s image as the bad boy of Australia’s long-raging climate debate: a supporter of industry and an opponent of tougher action on global warming.

Four years later, Morrison, now prime minister, appears to be preparing to wipe the soot from his hands.

In February 2017, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, then treasurer, brought a chunk of coal into Parliament to support the mining industry. (Video: Australian Parliament House via Storyful)

As one of the world’s top per-capita emitters and fossil fuel exporters, Australia has come under increasing pressure to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. Some 130 countries have already agreed to the target, leaving Australia isolated in the developed world. And the recent United Nations climate change report painted a bleak picture for an island nation already facing increasing droughts, bush fires and other extreme weather events.

This week, Morrison, who has said net-zero emissions by 2050 is his “ambition,” passed up a chance to commit to that target during a trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

But there are growing signs he will make the plunge before the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, known as or COP26, in five weeks.

Perhaps the clearest indication came on Friday, when Morrison’s right-hand man, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, warned that Australia faced stiff financial consequences if the country was perceived as “not transitioning in line with the rest of the world.”

“The expectations have been set, from Frydenberg on down,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane. “A firm target is coming.”

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In many ways, Morrison is a step behind not only other countries but much of his own. Every Australian state and territory has committed to the 2050 net-zero target, and many have more ambitious 2030 targets. So, too, have an increasing number of large corporations, including, just this week, the nation’s heaviest greenhouse gas emitter. Even Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is reportedly ending its long-standing editorial opposition to the idea.

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of calls from within Morrison’s Liberal Party, the main bloc in the ruling conservative coalition, for a 2050 net-zero commitment.

“I’m feeling increasingly confident that we will deliver that in time for Glasgow,” said Katie Allen, a centrist Liberal lawmaker from Melbourne.

Allen, who has been calling for net zero by 2050 since she was elected two years ago, said she was encouraged by recent shifts in the prime minister’s positioning. A majority of her party room now backs the 2050 target, she said, with a smaller group taking the lead in recent weeks by publicly pushing for the commitment.

Australia’s devastating bush fires in early 2020 were “a tipping point for the mood of the country,” she said. “We had palls of smoke across our three major cities.”

It is moderates like Allen who are at most risk of losing their seats if Morrison doesn’t commit to a 2050 net-zero target, Williams said. The government faces an election that must be held by May.

But Allen said her party’s shift was not political expediency but rather years in the making, pointing to the release of a low-
emissions tech strategy last year.

“You can’t fatten the pig on market day,” she said, quoting former prime minister John Howard.

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“A 2050 target will be an incredibly powerful signal to the world but more importantly to Australia and Australian businesses,” she said, adding that she hoped the commitment would open discussions on shorter-term targets and end an era of divisive climate politics. “We need to move past the energy wars, the climate wars that have dogged this nation.”

Warren Entsch, a moderate Liberal lawmaker from Queensland who has also been a vocal proponent of the 2050 target, said a commitment from Morrison seemed near.

“He’s moving very, very close in that direction,” Entsch said. “Personally, I’ve said get it off the bloody table. Just commit to it. Everybody else is.”

Entsch, who is Australia’s special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, said he had sensed “hostility” over his country’s climate stance from 15 ambassadors who visited the reef earlier this year. He worries Australia will be in for more of that in Glasgow if it doesn’t have at least a 2050 net-
zero commitment in hand.

The biggest roadblock has been the Liberal Party’s coalition partners, members of the National Party, who draw their support from rural communities wary of climate regulation. But in the past week, two senior Nationals have urged the coalition to commit to net zero by 2050. And the party’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, — the man who gleefully accepted Morrison’s lump of coal four years ago — said Friday he had “no problem” with net zero by 2050 as long as regional jobs weren’t lost.

Kevin Rudd, former prime minister from the center-left Labor Party, said the Liberals’ public debate was “political theater” designed to mute blowback from conservative voters.

“The internal decision has already been taken to adopt carbon neutrality by 2050 as national policy in the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow,” he said, citing conversations with officials and conservative lawmakers.

Rudd said he suspected Morrison would go even further — committing to more ambitious 2030 emissions cuts — to stop the ruling coalition from losing suburban seats.

“I’d like to say it’s because he’s finally read the science, but that’s got nothing to do with it,” Rudd said. “It’s because he’s bleeding votes badly.”

In Washington this week, Morrison said, “if we want to make a difference on climate change, we’ve got to make a difference everywhere, not just in advanced economies.” and that Australia “will certainly do our bit.”

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However, committing to net zero by 2050 ahead of the election could cost the coalition in rural areas, Williams said. And making commitments before Glasgow could backfire, he added, as it did for Rudd in 2009 when Copenhagen climate talks he championed ended in failure.

Climate experts, meanwhile, warn that net zero by 2050 is not nearly enough.

“That’s much too little, much too late as far as the science is concerned for meeting the Paris climate goals,” Will Steffen of Australian National University said. “There are a whole host of arguments to say net zero by 2050 is not sufficient,” he said, “But even just putting forward that target would open up a discourse that really needs to be had in Australia.”

He contrasted Morrison’s reluctance to move on climate change to the prime minister’s recent commitment to a controversial and costly nuclear submarine deal with the United States and Britain.

“With fires, with bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, with extreme heat, with sea level rise, with much of our population and infrastructure on the coast, we’re right in the firing line,” he said.

Steffen, who has called for Australia to slash emissions by up to 74 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035, said a 2050 net-zero commitment would nonetheless be a positive step.

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