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How Australia’s weak climate change plan is driven by domestic political concerns

November 10, 2021 GMT

In his address to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued that technology is the solution to tackling climate change and refused to sign on to agreements limiting methane gas emissions and stopping investments in new coal plants.

“Technology will have the answers to a decarbonised economy, particularly over time,” he said. “Driving down the cost of technology and enabling it to be adopted at scale is at the core of the Australian Way to reach our target of net zero emissions by 2050 that we are committing to at this COP26.”

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His plan was described by Labor Party opposition leader Anthony Albanese as a “scam” that “doesn’t constitute a plan”. Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt described the 2050 plan as a “climate fraud” with no details on how to achieve it.

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With a federal election due in the new year, Morrison’s refusal to join the two agreements and championing Australian green technology investments are designed to appeal to the local electorate.

The methane gas agreement is unpopular with rural farming communities, and with a major coal plant just opening in rural Queensland, with promises of thousands of new jobs, it is a vote-catcher with these communities. Pro-environmental policies are popular mainly with urban voters who usually vote with Labor or the Greens.

At the last federal election, in May 2019, Morrison’s Liberal-National Party (LNP) coalition narrowly won thanks mainly to a large number of seats in rural Queensland. That swing to the LNP could be a factor in next year’s elections as well.

Labor knows this. While Albanese slammed Morrison’s plan, he also didn’t criticise his decision not to join the coal agreement.

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More than 70 nations have signed onto the agreement at Glasgow to stop investing in coal plants. However, Australia has joined huge coal producers and users, including China, India and the United States, in refusing to join it.

Australia is the world’s second-largest thermal coal exporter, with China, India and the US as its major markets, and Australia reached an all-time high of 213 million tonnes of coal exports in 2019-20.

As Asian economies recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Australian government’s Resources and Energy Quarterly estimates that the value of Australian coal exports will rise to A$24 billion (US$17.8 billion) in 2021-22.

In June, the multibillion-dollar Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, operated by India’s Adani Group, struck coal for the first time. It is expected to start operations soon to export coal to India.

The company is completing a rail line almost 200km long to connect the mine to two ports, and it is expected to produce 10 million tonnes of coal a year for export with a lifespan of 60 years. The project should create thousands of new jobs in Queensland once it is fully operational.

Australia’s refusal to join the European Union and the US in pledging to commit to reduce global methane gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030, which could significantly reduce global warming, also stems from domestic political concerns.

Rural farmers are the backbone of Australia’s meat industry, and both cattle and sheep grazing contribute heavily to methane emissions. These farming areas are prime vote banks of Morrison’s coalition partner the National Party of Australia. Its leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the only way to meet the targets in the methane pledge would be “to start shooting your cattle”.

Australia’s red meat and livestock industry makes a large contribution to the country’s economy. The industry contributed A$17.6 billion to Australia’s GDP in 2018-19, and as of June 2019, 24.7 million grain-fed cattle and 65.8 million sheep were raised in Australia, according to statistics from industry group Meat and Livestock Australia.

Australia’s new green technology plan is based on a set of several projections. According to a vision statement released by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Australia will be able to produce clean hydrogen for less than A$2 per kilogram, low-emission steel production for less than A$900 per tonne, low-emission aluminium at less than A$2,700 per tonne and electricity from storage for firming for less than A$100 per megawatt-hour within the next few years.

Thus, Australia has presented itself as a technological saviour to a warming world, something to which it is no stranger after suffering several devastating bush fires recently.

Some could see Australia’s actions as yet another selfish attempt by a rich country to avoid making sacrifices but, instead, to buy time to profit from new technologies that could be sold to the rest of the world at a price, as pharmaceutical companies have done with Covid-19 vaccines.

Morrison has hinted at a technology marketing strategy. Australia is expected to invest upwards of A$20 billion in the coming decade to drive the transition to green technology by leveraging private-sector investment.

The Australian stall at COP26 was dominated by an exhibit of a model of a carbon-capture plant by oil and gas giant Santos, which is expected to receive carbon credit revenue from taxpayers. This angered Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who said the Australian government “is more interested in keeping the fossil fuel companies happy rather than working with other world leaders to increase climate action”.

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan-born journalist, media analyst and international communications expert based in Singapore

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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