Concern Australia's action on climate change 'out of step' with global allies as they step up ambition

Scott Morrison is standing by Australia's approach to tackling climate change, but there's concern the country's emissions targets appear increasingly out-of-step with allies.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks on for the opening remarks of the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by United States President Joe Biden.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks on for the opening remarks of the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by United States President Joe Biden. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's failure to increase the ambition of Australia's emissions targets during a climate leaders’ summit has prompted concern the country is falling behind global allies.

But Mr Morrison is standing steadfastly by Australia's approach saying the world won't thank the country for making promises but rather delivering on its commitments.

The virtual summit organised by the White House has placed pressure on Australia after global allies - including the US - hiked up their own emissions targets.


In an opening speech to the meeting on Thursday night, President Joe Biden warned the world is facing a “decisive decade” to act against the “existential crisis” of climate change.

He used his address to commit the US to a new target to cut emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. 

In contrast, Mr Morrison made no new commitment, with Australia still aiming to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels over the same period.

British, Japanese and Canadian leaders also used the summit to commit to more ambitious 2030 targets.

However, Mr Morrison - fronting a press conference on Friday - defended the trajectory of Australia's response to reducing emissions.

"The world won't thank us for the promises we make, the future will not thank us for the promises that are made," he told reporters.

"The future will thank us for the delivery of our key commitments."

Mr Morrison said that while other countries made commitments during the summit, he stood by Australia's performance on driving down emissions.

"I've heard it from countries that frankly haven't had any reduction in their emissions," he said.

"I have heard it from countries whose emissions are still rising."

But Frank Jotzo, director of the ANU's Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, is concerned Australia's emissions targets now appear increasingly out-of-step with global allies.

He said the responses from allies are significant, because medium-term targets are critical to setting the pathway to net zero by 2050.

“The Australian target at the current level is simply untenable in the international context,” Professor Jotzo told SBS News. 

“It is out-of-step with the ambition of all relevant comparison countries. The US target blows Australia’s target out of the water.” 

Mr Morrison was the 21st out of 27 speakers to address the summit overnight - convened by President Biden to push nations around the world to step up their commitment to reducing emissions.

When his chance to speak finally came, he told world leaders Australia is on a pathway to achieving net zero emissions and touted the country's progress on meeting its current emissions target.

"Australia is on the pathway to net zero. Our goal is to get there as soon as we possibly can," he told the summit. 

"For Australia, it is not a question of if or even by when for net zero, but importantly how."

He said Australia intends to update its long-term emissions reduction strategy ahead of the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. 

The White-House organised summit was convened to encourage countries to step up the global response to climate change.
The White-House organised summit was convened to encourage countries to step up the global response to climate change. Source: AAP

Global allies step up climate ambition

The new targets announced by global allies were an anticipated outcome heading into the summit. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week committed to cutting carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, ahead of the climate summit. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also used the summit to announce his country would strive to reduce its emissions by 40-45 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels, up from 30 per cent previously.  

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Japan would strive to reduce emissions by 46 per cent from 2013 levels, up from 26 per cent. 

In his address, Mr Morrison stressed Australia's focus on using advancements in technology to reduce emissions.

"Technology that enables and transforms our industries, not taxes that eliminate them and the jobs and livelihoods they support and create, especially in our regions,” he said.

Ahead of the summit, he announced more than $1 billion in projects and research focused on low-emissions technology as evidence of Australia’s approach to tackling climate change.

This includes more than $539.2 million in funding for hydrogen and carbon capture of storage projects.

“Mr President, in the United States you have the Silicon Valley. Here in Australia we are creating our own ‘Hydrogen Valley,” Mr Morrison said.  

He added that Australia had already reduced its emissions by 19 per cent on 2005 levels and intended to meet and beat its commitments under the Paris Agreement. 

President Biden warns this is 'the decisive decade'

Ahead of the summit, an official in the Biden administration expressed concern that Australia needs to do more to reduce emissions, 

In his speech overnight, President Biden said action taken over the next decade would be “decisive” to avoiding the worst consequences of the “climate crisis”.

“This is the decisive decade. The United States isn’t waiting. We are resolving to take action,” he said. 

“We really have no choice.  We have to get this done.” 

Mr Morrison has not formally committed to the net zero emissions target - making Australia an outlier compared to allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and South Korea. 

Professor Jotzo said that while Australia’s investments in technology were positive steps, Australia's reputation on reducing emissions would rely on adopting stronger targets to prove its commitment.

“These types of highly ambitious targets to reduce emissions by 2030 or 2035 are what makes it possible to get on the road to net zero by 2050,” he said.  

“This is what our allies and other countries will be focusing on - it is the very obvious lack of concrete action in Australia.”

US President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House campus 22 April, 2021, in Washington, DC.
US President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit. Source: AFP

Australia’s appearance at summit a “missed opportunity”

Mr Morrison's appearance at the climate summit has also drawn criticism from political rivals.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the summit had been “another missed opportunity” for Australia to keep up with the action of international allies. 

"This is another missed opportunity by Australia," he told reporters.

“Everyone else at that summit would have been scratching their heads.”  

He said Australia was in danger becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage.  

“Australia is seen with Saudi Arabia and Brazil, and countries like that, as not pulling our weight,” he said.  

Labor has committed to a net-zero target by the middle of the century, but is yet to outline any short-term emissions targets saying instead this will be consistent with their long-term goal.  

Greens Leader Adam Bandt also said Australia’s performance at the international summit would be considered an “international embarrassment”  

“We need to act in the next ten years that is the message from Joe Biden and this summit,” he told reporters. 

"We are stopping the world from getting on top of the climate challenge."

The climate summit was organised by President Biden to show his intent to prioritise the issue early in his administration.

It is considered to be a crucial preview to the upcoming UN COP26 summit in Glasgow. 

7 min read
Published 23 April 2021 at 4:29pm
By Tom Stayner