Scott Morrison refuses to budge on climate target as Biden pledges to halve US emissions by 2030

Katharine Murphy and Adam Morton
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Scott Morrison has confirmed Australia won’t increase its emissions reduction target at a virtual climate summit hosted by the US president, Joe Biden, but the prime minister says his message to allies and global peers will be Australia is “committed” and “performing”.

Australia goes into the summit under intensifying diplomatic pressure because the US has significantly ramped up its ambition, with the new administration now pledging to cut emissions by between 50 and 52% on 2005 levels by 2030.

The Japanese news agency Nikkei reported on Thursday night that Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, would set a new 46% emissions reduction target for 2030, compared with 2013 levels – up from the country’s previous 26% goal. Britain, the host of Cop26 in Glasgow in November, says it will cut emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

Related: ‘No action on anything’: Australia increasingly isolated as US and others ramp up climate ambition

Before his contribution at the event late on Thursday night, Morrison shrugged off commentary from the Biden administration that Australia’s existing emissions reduction trajectory was “insufficient”, telling reporters “the trajectory to any net zero outcome is not linear [and] anyone who thinks it is, I know doesn’t get it”.

While confirming there would be no new commitment on targets at the Biden-led virtual summit, Morrison held open the prospect of Australia strengthening its medium term position, currently a cut of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, later in 2021 – either at the G7 meeting in the UK mid-year, or in the lead up to Cop26.

But the prime minister also dug in behind Australia’s heavily criticised track record on abatement, declaring Australia’s current policy commitments were “serious”. He contended his government had “a good story to tell”.

The prime minister said Australia had reduced its domestic emissions by “some 36%” from 2005 levels. Government data puts the actual figure at just under 19%. Morrison’s figure excludes activity from gas exports.

Morrison said performance was more important than ambition.

Related: Australia’s ambition on climate change is held back by a toxic mix of rightwing politics, media and vested interests | Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull

“Many countries make commitments but none of them can claim the same record of achievement that Australia consistently has, whether it’s across Kyoto and where we’re tracking in terms of our commitments to Paris.”

Morrison said Australia could point to a track record of transparency, being “one of the few countries in the world … [to] report our emissions every single year”.

In the lead up to the climate action summit, Australia has announced additional funding for hydrogen hubs and for carbon capture and storage projects, and has allocated funds for international collaborations on new energy economy technology, including with the Biden administration.

Even though the expenditure Australia proposes is quantifiably modest compared to other nations engaged in a net zero transition, Morrison said the commitments would “send a big message around the world over the next decade, that Australia, through particularly our resources industries and our manufacturing industries, [will be] demonstrating to the world how you do this”.

“Unless you’re committed and committed to working together with developing or developed countries, to put in place the commercial technology that achieves net zero, then these are just media statements,” he said. “And Australia is backing up our commitments with the serious investment.”

During the Covid-19 recovery, Germany has pledged to invest €9bn ($AU14bn) in hydrogen alone.

Ahead of the virtual summit, which will be attended by 40 world leaders, an official from the Biden administration told reporters during a briefing Australia needed to do more.

“I think our colleagues in Australia recognise that there’s going to have to be a shift,” the official said. “It’s insufficient to follow the existing trajectory and hope that they will be on a course to deep decarbonisation and getting to net zero emissions by mid-century.”

The official said the current differences between the US and Australia were mostly about emissions reduction trajectory and “how do you get on it”.

Where Australia’s approach was “don’t worry, technology will solve the problem”, the others believed technology would contribute but was insufficient on its own.

The official described the second view as “you have to have a set of policies; you have to have national intent; you have to follow up with actions and commitments”.