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Climate Change

Australia balks at net zero as climate turns up heat on Morrison

Critics say pressure to act will only build as issue hurts Canberra's global image

A woman with a burning pram sits outside Parliament House in Canberra, during an Extinction Rebellion climate protest on Aug. 10.   © Extinction Rebellion/AAP

SYDNEY -- A pram was set on fire, an activist glued her hands to the pavement, and a parliamentary building was spray painted with graffiti. It was no ordinary day in Australia's capital, and the catalyst for the disruption in Canberra was climate change -- or, more specifically, the Australian government's perceived unwillingness to address it.

Protesters swarmed Parliament House earlier this week to demand more action by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who refused to commit the country to a 2050 net zero emissions target following the release of an alarming United Nations report.

The commotion highlighted yet again the dilemma Australia faces, as a nation driven by brown industries but also one at high risk from warmer temperatures. As the government wrestles with this at home, critics say the debate is increasingly casting Australia in a negative light abroad.

The report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that Australia is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, facing more intense and frequent bushfires and droughts in the future. It was sober reading for a country that experienced an unprecedented fire season last year, which saw millions of hectares of land burned, billions of animals perish, and 173 people killed.

Yet Australia remains an outlier as one of the few Group of 20 nations not to have set a net zero target. And Morrison remained undeterred. "I won't be signing a blank check on behalf of Australians without plans," the leader of the center-right coalition government said. "I will not be asking people in the regions of this country to carry the burden for this country alone."

Morrison has told parliament his cabinet will develop a plan for a post-2030 climate policy and that this would be presented to voters before the next election, due by next year, according to media reports.

The resources boom of the mid- to late 2000s, spurred by China's lust for Australian coal and iron ore, transformed the economy and delivered unprecedented revenue to the government coffers. This fiscal year alone, coal exports are tipped to be worth AU$38 billion ($28 billion), according to government figures.

But Australia's economic dependency on mining means the sector wields significant influence over public policy, according to political scientists. "There is no doubt that the mining lobby is the most powerful lobby group in Australia at the moment," said Griffith University's Paul Williams, who notes the sector was instrumental in bringing down former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd following its hostile campaign against his government's super resources tax.

As a "pro-business" party, Morrison's Liberals share a particularly close relationship with the sector. But Williams said it is the junior governing partner in the coalition, The Nationals -- representing Australia's regional, rural and farming communities -- that will continue to act as a key roadblock to net zero emissions.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has insisted he will not "sign a blank check" on behalf of his country for a net zero target.   © Reuters

"They will play quite a significant role" in shaping climate policy, he said. "The National Party is unique, as it is one of the last stand-alone agrarian parties in the world."

The party is divided by geography, the agrarian industries it represents, as well as factions split between big government interventionists and free marketeers. On net zero emissions the party is especially divided: While some have expressed openness to a target, others have warned it is their constituents who would bear the brunt of the major economic transition in Australia.

These divisions were never clearer than when Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce exploited his predecessor's conditional support for net zero -- if it excluded agriculture -- to help tear him down and assume the leadership in June.

Joyce also dismissed calls for new climate action after the release of the IPCC report. "We have been sucked into this one before, where we've agreed with the outcome and later came the price and the price was the divestiture of all our vegetation rights," Joyce said.

Williams says the divide will make it harder for Morrison to set a net zero goal, and that climate change will continue to act as a wedge issue for the governing coalition.

But whether it is due to the mining sector or his own coalition partners, Morrison's refusal to commit to a net zero future has diplomatic ramifications for Australia, argued former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr.

Carr, a Labor Party veteran, believes the country faces the prospect of carbon border tariffs from the European Union and the U.S. because of its climate inaction. "By being a resistor to the necessary action on climate change, we are a less interesting country in the world community, we are less attractive as a middle power, we've got nothing to say at COP26 (the next annual U.N. Climate Change Conference) and nothing to contribute to what is a world debate," Carr said.

Australia's top diplomat from 2012 to 2013 told Nikkei Asia that Morrison should not expect the red carpet to be rolled out for him at the Glasgow Climate Conference taking place in November. "[U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson obviously believes he represents a more enlightened version of conservatism than Morrison. The Americans are courteous but bewildered that Australia is such a laggard and have said 'no' to collaborating with us [on climate change] because of the brand damage they would suffer," Carr added.

Others argue Australia is missing a lucrative opportunity by refusing to commit to net zero and embrace a low carbon economy.

Nicki Hutley, one of the country's leading economists who works with the Climate Council, a non-profit, noted that several renewable projects around the country signal a bright future if Australia were to ever seize that opportunity. This includes a 12,000-hectare solar farm project in the Northern Territory, which aims to export green electricity to Singapore.

Hutley said "there will be huge markets for [green industry] around the world."

"If you invest now, you can create new industries ... there are huge economic benefits to be gained from making the transition, and huge losses avoided by doing so," she said.

The pressure on Australia, Hutley argued, "is only going to build and it is just silly, economically as well as environmentally, for us not to act."

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