Great Britain

Wealthy countries’ climate shift leaves Australia isolated from closest allies

In an Australian context, the climate message from the weekend G7 summit is clear: the world’s biggest and richest democracies are acknowledging what the science demands and pledging to act in a way they haven’t before. The contrast with the debate in Canberra is growing.

The commitments from the G7 have come later than they should have. Activists are understandably sceptical about whether their actions will rise to meet the leaders’ words, and critical of the failure to announce long-promised climate funding to help developing countries. Caution ahead of the major UN summit in Glasgow in November, known as Cop26, is justified and necessary.

But the focus has shifted remarkably in recent months to the need for urgent action. While many questions are still to be answered, major countries including the US and Japan have joined the EU and Britain in supporting green proposals that would have been difficult to imagine a few months ago.

This doesn’t apply to Australia, one of four guest nations at the talks. When Scott Morrison was asked in a post-summit media conference about a G7 declaration that public financing of unabated coal-fired power must stop this year, his first instinct was to stress that his government was not a signatory (he later added it had no plans to put money into coal generation at home).

Before the summit, some in the British government had hope that the guests – which also included India, South Korea and South Africa – might sign up to a “G7+” communique that strengthened the global climate push. Any thought of that was dropped in the lead-up after the gap on climate between the members and their guests widened as the major economies became more ambitious.

The G7 communique is worth a read. The leaders of the UK, US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada describe climate change as an “existential threat”. They have committed to collectively cut emissions roughly in half between 2010 and 2030 – in the ballpark of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested developed countries would need to do to keep a post-industrial age temperature rise of 1.5C within reach.

They say dealing with the problem requires a “green revolution” that involves not only cutting emissions but funding global adaptation, halting and reversing biodiversity loss and creating jobs through both “policy and technological transformation”. The pledge on net zero emissions is now to reach it “as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest”.

It means significant action before 2030 is vital. All G7 governments have increased their targets in recent months, reflecting a pledge in the Paris agreement to ratchet up commitments. The emissions reductions promised by the US, UK and EU are now double that proposed by the Morrison government. More policies are promised before Cop26.

While the rhetoric at the summit avoided the implicit criticism of recent months – when Morrison was refused a speaking slot at a British and French-run global ambition climate summit and described as being not on “the same page” on the issue by the Biden administration – it has left Australia more isolated from its closest allies.

Morrison did not increase the country’s emissions reduction commitments or promise action that would cut CO2 anytime soon. He continues to lean hard on debunked claims that Australia is doing more than other countries and suggests international allies have a history of not living up to climate commitments.

The latter point is repeated despite expert analysis finding that, in most cases, it isn’t true. Until recently, the real issue has been a spectacular lack of ambition in countries making commitments, not them failing to live up to what was promised. Australia is still stuck in the lack of ambition phase.

It bears repeating: the emissions reductions since 2005 that the Morrison government likes to boast of overwhelmingly happened when Labor was in power – mostly due to a drop in forest destruction in Queensland and a decline in native forestry. Cheap solar and wind are having some impact in electricity generation despite a lack of federal policy to support them, but coal still provides about two-thirds of power, and there has been no structural shift away from fossil fuels in transport, industry and mining.

The government is increasing subsidies to gas, including hundreds of millions of dollars allocated in last month’s budget, despite the International Energy Agency warning the world should no longer be investing in new gas fields if it hopes to keep open a “narrow window” to limit global heating to 1.5C. Morrison is due to give an opening address (by video) for an oil and gas industry conference hosted by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association in Perth on Tuesday.

The area the government is in step with the G7 on climate is in its support for technology. The communique promised a “technology-driven transition to net zero” – language that appears to line up with the coalition’s “technology not taxes” approach.

Australia is working on agreements to develop clean technology with several countries, including deals with Germany and Japan announced over the weekend. The former appears more developed, including a $50m taxpayer-funded commitment to work together on green hydrogen, an area that the Germans have already backed with billions of dollars. The Japanese deal appears focused on reducing emissions from fossil fuel production rather than backing zero-emissions technology.

Neither should be dismissed – new commercial solutions will be vital – but, with no timeframes or emissions reduction goals attached, they are hard to assess.

Meanwhile, green solutions already exist in many areas, notably electricity generation, transport, industrial efficiency, and commercial and residential heating and cooling. The G7 communique acknowledges this in emphasising the need for policies that cut emissions now in these and other areas.

Among the questions left after Morrison’s G7 appearance is whether the government will join the 100-plus countries that have already set a net zero emissions target for 2050.

For months, he has strongly resisted growing international pressure for Australia to do more, saying Australia will set its own path. There is no evidence that has changed. But the prime minister’s language continues to evolve in a way that suggests he understands the world has moved beyond a point where a 2050 net zero goal without anything to back it up is enough.

Speaking after the summit, Morrison told reporters it was already “very clear that we are moving towards net zero” and the “new energy economy is coming”.

Perhaps most interestingly, he volunteered he had a “very, very, very informative discussion” with the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, who he had previously met when Morrison was treasurer and Draghi the head of the European Central Bank. He said they discussed “the direction of financial markets, bond markets and how they are working and pricing in and positioning for the new energy economy” and concluded “they’re economic realities that Australia has to address”.

One interpretation of this is the prime minister increasingly understands the world is moving pretty fast and recognises that can’t be ignored forever. But what he plans to do about it in the short term, if anything, remains a mystery.

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