The world has shifted in the two years since Scott Morrison warned electric cars would end the weekend during the election campaign.
This week President Joe Biden completed a policy U-turn for the US, pledging to convert his federal government’s fleet of 650,000 vehicles to electric cars as a centrepiece of the nation’s commitment to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
The bold policy was a catalyst for General Motors which announced that week it would stop making petrol commuter vehicles by 2035, and it’s now rolling out big-budget advertisements claiming its commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2040 can jumpstart the country’s beleaguered auto industry.
Biden’s electric vehicle transition, estimated to cost around $20 billion, is backed with market-driving policies including tightened fuel efficiency rules for cars, extending the $10,000 rebate for electric vehicle buyers and funding the roll-out of 500,000 charging stations across the country.
The President has also launched a $2 trillion green stimulus fund, which will include funding for electric vehicle manufacturing, which he claims will generate one million new jobs across the automotive supply chain.
The US agency responsible for government vehicles, the General Services Administration, said the government is “working with the American automotive manufacturing industry to ensure that these next-generation vehicles are built in America by American workers”.
The contrast with Australia couldn’t be more stark. The Morrison government released on Friday its long-awaited electric vehicle strategy, which unlike other developed nations included no targets for market share, and no incentives to drive uptake.
Morrison’s warned, on the hustings ahead of the May 2019 election, that former Labor leader Bill Shorten pledged to lift the market share of electric vehicles to 50 per cent by 2030 and that Shorten “wants to end the weekend when it comes to his policy on electric vehicles.”
“It’s not going to tow your trailer, it’s not going to tow your boat, it’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family,” he said.
However, in a sign of increasing pressure on climate action Morrison used his strongest language yet at the National Press Club on Monday, declaring he wants Australia to reach net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050. But he stopped short of committing to a deadline.
The federal government has said it’s on track to reach its 2030 emissions reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement, but its long-term climate pledge is unchanged: to reach net-zero emissions sometime before the end of this century.
Morrison said on Monday he wouldn’t commit to an emissions’ deadline until “I can tell you how we get there”, and argued there weren’t “too many other places” which had mapped out a pathway to net-zero.
The policy commitments of Australia’s major trading partners like Japan, South Korea, China and the UK isn’t rated above Australia’s by the independent analyst at the international Climate Action Tracker.
But like the US under the Biden administration, these countries have formed a coalition of the willing and pledged to reach net-zero by 2050 or 2060, which former diplomats and climate-policy watchers say could create enough leverage to push Australia to match their rhetoric.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday ordered government departments to model a carbon price across all areas of the economy, which will include a policy framework to achieve net-zero emissions. This is expected to be announced in the lead-up to the UN climate talks that the UK is hosting in November.
Carbon Market Institute chief executive John Connor, a former head of the Climate Institute think tank, says there was “no question Australia is falling behind on climate action”.
“We lack the framework countries are putting in place to guide business investment for industry in infrastructure, transport or agriculture,” Connor says.
Climate Council researcher Dr Simon Bradshaw says Australia “is now almost alone among major advanced economies in remaining stubbornly wedded to its existing target for 2030, rather than stepping up its ambition in line with expectations under the Paris Agreement”.
Economists say despite Morrison’s increasing ambition to hit a 2050 deadline for net-zero, the government’s focus on low emissions’ technology will not be enough on its own to achieve it.
Steven Hamilton is a senior economist at the Blueprint Institute, which includes former Liberal MPs Christopher Pyne and Robert Hill. Hamilton says “technology won’t get us there. It’s necessary but not sufficient. What we need is incentives″.
“It’s inconceivable we can get to net-zero without a market mechanism to drive investment in lowering emissions,” he says.
Connor says other countries were straightening their 2030 targets and the EU and New Zealand are pursuing reforms of markets that price carbon emissions while China launched a pilot emissions’ trading scheme this week.
“They are coherent policy frameworks that send signals to industry and provide clear guidelines for investment,” he says.
An international race is on to be the first nation to develop a hydrogen export supply chain. The fuel source is viewed as a potential boom commodity if it’s adopted as a zero-emissions replacement for petroleum products.
Former Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and eminent economist Ross Garnaut say Australia, with its abundant land and sunshine, can become a hydrogen superpower, and the Morrison government has committed $500 million to support the hydrogen industry.
But Australia’s investment to date pales in comparison to other nations.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is investing $6.5 billion to drive down production costs and make exports economically viable. Other heavy fuel users in Japan, France, Spain and Germany are each planning to invest more than $10 billion in production and to switch from fossil fuel energy generation to hydrogen.
Australia’s business community is voting with its wallet for more ambitious climate action. An investment splurge on Australia’s carbon credits markets revealed this week investors have started betting Morrison will wind up with firm climate targets one way or another.
Australian export behemoths including Rio Tinto and BHP, as well as the Business Council of Australia, employer groups, major agriculture lobbies and multinational food companies are pursuing carbon neutrality deadlines – in part to avoid being stung with trade tariffs or charges by countries that have set net-zero targets.
Climate change is a key concern for Pacific Island leaders, and showing willing to act on climate action could boost our standing in the region – now viewed as crucial due to China’s efforts to grow its influence.
But a coal-borne wind blowing out of the Nationals’ party room and against the climate current, is creating choppy waters for the Coalition. Outspoken backbenchers Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan raised concerns over the Prime Minister’s net-zero pitch this week, warning regional communities and blue-collar workers will suffer.
It’s an open question whether Morrison thinks the fight on the domestic front is worth it – and he’ll be keenly aware his performance in the Pacific is unlikely to influence voters in what’s expected to be an election year.
However, former adviser to Julie Bishop when she was foreign affairs minister, Philip Citowicki, disagrees with this calculation.
“Increasing international pressure driven by the US means the net-cost to Australian foreign policy is begging to outweigh the domestic political gain,” says Citowicki, also a former political aide to Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis.
″It’s a ticking time bomb for the government to act in this space. There’s an election sooner rather than later, and it makes increasing sense to realign with international momentum.”
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned in December that inaction on climate change would lead “Fijians and our Pacific Island sisters and brothers to be some sacrificial canary for coal-burning countries and high-emitting companies.”
“When it comes to climate change, I’m fond of saying every nation is in the same canoe. Currently, that collective canoe is taking on water and there are too few of us trying to patch the holes,” he said.
Citowicki says growing geostrategic competition in the Pacific is the focus of Australian foreign policy priorities, and working enthusiastically with the Biden administration would help overcome negative perceptions of the Morrison government’s closeness to the former Trump Whitehouse.
China labelled Australia a “condescending master” in the Pacific in 2019 and has since committed to net-zero emissions while rapidly expanding infrastructure and delivering loans throughout the region.
He doesn’t expect the US to force Australia’s arm, but to diplomatically state climate deadlines and co-operation in the Pacific is “something that is much preferred for the Coalition to pivot to”.
“My personal fixation is John Kerry as the (US) Climate Envoy who has a heavy focus on national security elements of climate change, and it brings a whole new lens for (the Morrison government) to enact legislation to assure Australians we have a climate-resilient strategy,” Citowicki says.
Washington-based national security expert Richard Weitz says the disruptive threats from climate change will be front and centre in diplomatic relations with the US.
“Just like when foreign leaders came to Washington during the Obama administration they would come prepared to talk about nuclear disarmament, now they will come ready to talk about making progress on climate change,” says Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Center for Future Security Strategies.
Weitz’s research details how climate-related disasters like droughts and floods could spark conflicts over resources, declining agricultural yields and rising sea levels could cause mass migrations of people across international borders.
“It would be seen as a sign of a healthy US-Australia partnership, and conversely if Australia was seen as not supporting these initiatives, that could be seen as a source of tension,” he says.
It’s worth noting that the Morrison government had no problem setting a tight deadline on another form of pollution, announcing last a year a 2024 phase-out of dangerous waste exports.
But a bold move on carbon emissions is still off-limits.
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