US under Biden to test Morrison government’s do-little climate stance

Those hoping new United States President Joe Biden would make action on climate change one of his top priorities would have been cheered by the flurry of activity from his first days in office.

With a few strokes of his pen, Biden cancelled a Trump administration permit for the $US8 billion ($10.3 billion) Keystone XL pipeline linking Canada’s oil sands to the Gulf coast, slapped a moratorium on oil and gas leases in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, began a review of pollution regulations and ordered that the US rejoin the Paris climate agreement 77 days after it had formally left it.

President Joe Biden reversed many Trump administration policies in his first days in office, including setting up the US to formally rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement 77 days after the country left it.Credit:AP

And kicking off the new administration’s first full day in office, Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry, was up at Washington’s crack of dawn to tell business leaders of G20 nations the US was on the “road back to progress” on climate action after “four wasted years” under Donald Trump.

“The early hour is appropriate because we really don’t have a minute to waste,” Kerry said, adding that “very few” nations were on a trajectory of cutting greenhouse emissions to meet even the current goals, “let alone the targets we need to avert catastrophic damage”.

John Kerry signing the Paris Accords to reduce global greenhouse emissions to tackle climate change in 2016 with his granddaughter. As President Biden’s special climate envoy, Kerry is expected to lead America’s diplomatic efforts to accelerate climate action globally. Credit:Getty

In comments that would have been picked up in Canberra, Kerry signalled that Washington would be pressing other countries to do better – albeit with some “humility” because the US had “walked away from the table” – particularly at the next global climate summit planned for Scotland later this year.

“At [Glasgow] in November, all nations must raise ambition together – or we will all fail, together,” he said.

Among rich nations, Australia is arguably among the most exposed to any US diplomatic offensive. As one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters and with one of the highest per capita levels of carbon emissions at home, the country has earned a global reputation for weak ambition.

Climate Action Tracker, independent analysts supported in part by the German government, rate Australia’s current target of cutting 2005-level emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 as “insufficient”, with “a lack of climate policy across all sectors”.

“The Australian government has initiated a gas-led recovery [from COVID-19] rather than a green recovery, and has continued to signal its support for the coal industry,” it said. “The government has shown no intention of updating its Paris Agreement target nor adopting a net-zero emissions target, with the Prime Minister [Scott Morrison] specifically ruling this out.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wears a hard hat and face mask during a visit to South32′s Cannington coal mine in McKinlay, Queensland last week.Credit:AAP

Howard Bamsey, Australia’s former top climate diplomat, says the Biden team’s ambitions are likely to make “Australia even more exceptional than it was on international climate diplomacy”.

Countries that account for more than 70 per cent of Australia’s trade, such as China, have already set carbon-neutrality goals. One result is that the Morrison government’s refusal to offer one for Australia means the country’s international reputation is “worse than it needs to be”.

“It’s very puzzling why Australia would allow its position to be compromised so unnecessarily. Why don’t we just say it and get on with it?” says Bamsey, now a professor at the Australian National University.

Bamsay lays blame on members within the government who have halted climate action in the past: “There’s no other explanation for these missteps than some peculiar party room problem and we’re paying a very high price for it, which is about to increase.”

One area of interest will be to see if Australia’s decision in 2018 to halt new contributions to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund after its initial foray of $200 million gets fresh scrutiny from the US or others.

The Biden administration has committed to restart US funding after President Donald Trump blocked contributions after the first $US1 billion of the $US3 billion promised by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Bamsey, who served on the secretariat of the fund when it was set up, says Australia’s money translated into $600 million being invested into the Pacific. “It was a terrific result for Australia,” he says, adding that other nations “will certainly encourage Australia to do more”.

“Don’t be afraid”: Prime Minister Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal during question time in 2017 when he was Treasurer.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Bill Hare, a director of Climate Analytics and a climate summit veteran, says: “Australia is going to be under a fair bit of pressure, internationally”.

The most recent formal summit, in Madrid in late 2019, already had Australia lining up with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Brazil to slow progress. Hare says the European Union and Britain – both of which had lifted their 2030 climate ambitions at the end of last year – are among those already scrutinising the Morrison government’s stance.

In particular will be how Australia negotiates on the Paris Rulebook, which will determine whether or not any so-called carry-over credits for overachievement during the previous Kyoto Protocol (2008-20) could be counted towards the Paris Agreement (2021-30).

After stating such credits should be used, the Morrison government has lately said they won’t be needed because Australia’s emissions are falling faster than forecast, although it has not yet committed to formally extinguishing them.

Alan Pears, an energy expert at RMIT University, says Australia would be better off buying international carbon credits to offset any shortfall of its 2030 targets.

Such offsets “are cheap compared with creating a real global view that they are cheats”, Pears says. “That’s not worth it.”

Among Biden’s policies is achieving net-zero emissions from US electricity industry by 2035.Credit:Bloomberg

The Morrison government, of course, has had a lot of time to get its lines straight. Not only was Biden elected more than 11 weeks ago, officials were well versed in his views on the campaign trail and from his time serving as vice-president during Barack Obama’s two presidential terms (2009-17).

“The President has made it clear, [climate change is] an existential threat that has to be addressed,” Australia’s ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, told ABC’s Radio National on Friday.

Setting climate targets “is obviously something the Australian government will have to look at”, he said. “Targets are important, but what’s also important is to have plans.”

Picking up where Barack Obama left off: Joe Biden (left) visits rooftop solar panels in Denver, Colorado in 2009, when he was US Vice-President.Credit:Getty

A spokesman for Angus Taylor, the Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister, echoed that sentiment, adding that “we welcome the Biden administration’s return to the Paris Agreement and focus on investing in new and emerging technologies that will lower global emissions”.

Among Australia’s commitment is $300 million to fund the development of hydrogen technology, including both gas and renewable energy sources.

The spokesman said the US stance “aligns with Australia’s Technology Investment Roadmap, which was discussed between President Biden and PM Morrison in November last year”, without elaborating.

Sinodinos went further, saying “we’re looking to actually enter into a low-emissions technology partnership with the US” and “there’s a lot of commonality in our programs”.

The Trump Administration promised to boost coal but in fact many coal-fired power plants and mines closed during his term.Credit:Andrew Harrer

Just how much commonality remains to be seen, especially if John Kerry’s urgent wish-list is realised.

Describing the potential bonanza as “the economic opportunity of many lifetimes”, the climate envoy said the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 needs to happen much faster than it is.

The phase-out of coal, for instance, will need to be five times faster than has happened during the 2013-18 period; tree-cover increases must also quicken five-fold; while the ramp-up of renewable energy must rise six times; and, the transition to electric vehicles 22 times faster, Kerry says.

“In this decade through 2030, the world will need more than $US1 trillion in annual investment in clean power systems to speed the energy transition [alone],” he says.

For a comparison, figures out last week from Bloomberg New Energy Finance tallied a record $US501.3 billion in decarbonisation efforts in 2020, a 9 per cent rise on the previous year, even with the COVID-19 pandemic.

RMIT’s Pears expects the Morrison government will surprise many by setting a 2050 net-zero target and may even lift its 2030 target.

For one thing, the states and territories have already set mid-century carbon neutrality goals and many companies are following suit. He points to the little-known federal government-backed Climate Active website, where organisations can have their achievements certified.

For the cost of $170,000 in offsets, for instance, the Bayside Council in Melbourne (where Pears resides) achieved net-zero emissions last year. “It’s all going on under the radar,” he says.

Similarly, the government is basing Australia’s emissions projections on “unrealistically conservative” modelling, particularly for the electricity sector.

It uses the central forecast for emissions used by the Australian Energy Market Operator, when the much lower “step change” trajectory is actually being implemented as ever cheaper renewable energy enters the industry.

That leaves the Morrison government with the opportunity to confound critics and deflect diplomatic urgings from wherever they come.

“They will miraculously meet and beat their targets without much effort at all,” Pears predicts.

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