The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, has declared coal will be around for “many more years to come” as trade ministers from Australia and the UK launch a last-ditch effort to resolve lingering disputes before announcing in-principle support for a bilateral trade deal.
McCormack’s bullish comments on the future of coal on Monday followed an agreement by the G7 over the weekend to end government support for coal-fired power stations by the end of the year. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, attended the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Morrison is now due in London for a separate program with the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, with trade an important focus. The expectation is Morrison and Johnson will commit in-principle to a new bilateral free trade deal between the UK and Australia when they meet early on Tuesday morning Australian time.
Officials in Australia are confident a trade agreement will be landed but it is not yet a done deal. Trade ministers are continuing efforts to resolve disputes about agriculture and labour market mobility. Dan Tehan and his British counterpart, Liz Truss, are due to meet again on Monday night in an effort to clear the remaining obstacles.
Morrison and Tehan have been signalling consistently they will not sign a deal that contains insufficient market access for Australian producers.
On Sunday, Australia’s trade minister said it was in the interests of both countries to reach a “comprehensive deal”. But Tehan said if agreement wasn’t reached by Tuesday “we’ll take more time” because “we have to get this right”.
The climate crisis took centre stage on the final day of the G7 summit in Cornwall.
But Morrison stuck to his preferred approach of focusing on technologies such as hydrogen, rather than signing up to more ambitious medium or long-term emission reduction commitments. Over the weekend Australia signed deals with Japan and Germany to develop technology to help reach “a net zero emissions future”.
Australia’s lack of ambition is now very obviously at odds with actions being undertaken by other major developed economies ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow late this year.
The weekend G7 summit communique committed members to “accelerating efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep the 1.5C global warming threshold within reach, strengthening adaptation and resilience to protect people from the impacts of climate change, halting and reversing biodiversity loss, mobilising finance and leveraging innovation to reach these goals”.
G7 countries committed to achieving “an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s” within their jurisdictions, and phasing out “new direct government support for international carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy as soon as possible”.
The communique also noted that continued global investment in unabated coal power generation was incompatible with keeping 1.5C within reach. It said international investments in unabated coal “must stop now, and we commit now to an end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021”.
Asked about the G7 stance on Monday, the nationals leader, Michael McCormack, who is the acting prime minister while Morrison is in the UK and France, told reporters the Morrison government would “do things based on what’s right for Australia”.
“We will do things based on what’s right for Australian households and factories and farms so that they don’t have to pay any more for their electricity than what they otherwise should have,” the acting prime minister said.
Even though Australia is a signatory to the Paris agreement which requires global action to limit global warming to well below 2C, preferably to 1.5C, compared with pre-industrial levels, McCormack said it was “all well and good for other countries in the world to have these outcomes and these determinations – that’s for them to decide”.
“We will decide what’s best for Australia in Australia’s national interest,” McCormack said, adding the government wanted to “make sure that we’ve got a manufacturing sector in Australia”.
McCormack said coal had “a part to play for many more years to come”. He noted export earnings from the coal industry paid for “a lot” of schools and hospitals.
“It pays for a lot of barista machines that produces the coffee that inner-city people sit and talk about the death of coal,” the acting prime minister said.
Morrison told reporters in Cornwall that Australia was not a signatory to the G7 communique but he was “very confident” Australia would be in the new energy economy “in the future”.
Addressing the new coal commitments by the G7, Morrison noted that Australia’s coal generation assets had “an economic life, and that will run its course, just like the coal-fired fleets in Germany and many other places will run their course”.
The prime minister noted the G7 statement referenced “unabated” coal. He signalled Australia did not have plans to pursue new coal developments but he said it was important to develop carbon capture technologies at an affordable scale.