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Australia pivots on climate with 2050 net zero target, but won’t adopt steeper 2030 commitment

A lone tree stands near a water trough in a drought-affected field on the outskirts of Walgett, New South Wales, Australia, in 2018. (David Gray/Reuters)

SYDNEY — Australia bowed to growing domestic and international pressure on Tuesday as Prime Minister Scott Morrison committed the country to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Speaking just days before the start of the COP26 climate summit, however, Morrison defied calls from world leaders and climate scientists to set a more ambitious 2030 target.

“Our plan gets the balance right,” Morrison said, vowing it would not raise energy bills or cost jobs. “It is not a revolution but a careful evolution.”

Australia, one of the world’s top per capita emitters and fossil fuel exporters, had faced widespread criticism as one of the few developed countries not to adopt the 2050 target ahead of the summit, which begins Sunday. The nation is on the front lines of global warming, with popular support for swifter action surging after devastating bush fires early last year.

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

But critics said the announcement still left Australia isolated as allies including the United States and United Kingdom have agreed to steeper short-term reductions.

“This is just kicking the can down the road, which will put us in a much worse position by 2050,” said Will Steffen, a climate scientist at Australian National University.

Morrison said his plan would lead to a 35 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, building on a 20 percent reduction already achieved and exceeding the 26 to 28 percent vow made as part of the Paris climate agreement six years ago.

But he refused to lock in a more ambitious 2030 target. The United States has said it will reduce emissions by 50 to 52 percent by that date, and Britain has vowed to cut emissions by 78 percent by 2035.

“There will be lots of words in Glasgow, but I will be able to point to the actions of Australia and the achievements of Australia, and I think that’s very important,” Morrison said. “The credibility of Australia’s position is confirmed by our record. We’ve cut [emissions] already by 20 percent and grown our economy by 45 percent. New Zealand, Canada, the United States, other countries, they can’t speak to that.”

He alluded to the international pressure on his government over the issue. “Australians will set our own path to net zero by 2050 and we will set it here, by Australians for Australians,” he said.

Morrison began softening his messaging on climate change months ago, saying it was his “ambition” to reach net zero by 2050. But Tuesday’s announcement nonetheless comes as a significant shift for a politician who once brought a lump of coal into Parliament and whose conservative coalition government was narrowly reelected two years ago with a climate policy opposed to 2050 net zero.

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)

The announcement comes after weeks of wrangling within the coalition, as moderate members of Morrison’s Liberal Party fear losing their seats next year in an election in which climate change is likely to be a central issue. Lawmakers from junior coalition partner the Nationals, who draw their support from rural communities wary of climate regulation, have demanded concessions.

They got them Tuesday in the form of about $15 billion in investments for low-emissions technologies over the next decade, money the prime minister said would go to rural areas.

The election appeared to be on Morrison’s mind as he used Tuesday’s news conference to criticize the opposition Labor Party, which backs the 2050 net zero target but has been coy about 2030. Some Liberal lawmakers, however, said his refusal to set a stronger 2030 target could provide Labor with an opening.

“It makes no earthly sense to beat targets and then not take credit for it by updating the target,” said one Liberal lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

“This is all just about a political fix because Scott Morrison couldn’t go to Glasgow not supporting net zero by 2050,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese told local radio on Tuesday. “He wouldn’t have been allowed in the room.”

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Steffen, who has called for Australia to slash emissions by up to 74 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035, said the announcement was more show than substance.

“This government is not at all committed to doing anything meaningful on climate change,” he said. “They will do anything they can to look like they might be doing something, but the big steps that need to be taken are not being taken.”

Hugh Saddler, an independent climate consultant, said Australia’s achievement of a 20 percent emissions reduction over 2005 levels was largely a result of states taking the lead on turning farmland back into carbon sinks more than a decade ago, aided by a recent dip stemming from coronavirus lockdowns. With lockdowns ending and further land changes limited, future cuts will be harder to achieve, he said.

“We’ve got to do an awful lot more immediately, which makes 2030 incredibly important,” he said, adding that today’s announcement would do little to change the international perception of Australia as a climate laggard.

“We’re still back of the pack,” he said.

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