Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate: How the Urgency of Climate Change was Lost on Morrison
Scott Morrison’s microphone was muted for the first few seconds of his address at Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate; however, this took little away from the limited contribution he made to Australia’s carbon emission reduction pledge. Instead, his speech focused on how Australia was going to reach its 2030 Paris Agreement commitments, rather than when it planned on achieving them. The crux of Morrison’s speech emphasised Australia’s Technology Investment Roadmap initiative, and its role in transforming industries through sustainable technology, as opposed to resorting to carbon taxes that eliminate jobs and livelihoods. Morrison’s speech largely played into the domestic political divide on the issue of reducing carbon emissions, and notably affirmed Australia’s unwillingness to take global leadership on climate change.
What was the Leaders Summit on Climate all about?
The Summit, which was held on April 22 – 23, 2021 (Earth Day), consisted of forty global leaders who were invited by President Biden to pledge renewed targets for the reduction of carbon emissions by 2030. Biden opened by committing the US to a target of 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 based on 2005 levels. The ambitious target signalled Washington’s active return to the forefront of global action against climate change, following the disruptive period of denialism under the Trump administration. The majority of the global leaders present were quick to come to the table with their own 2030 targets and bolster behind the familiarity of US leadership. This comes in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow, where further discussion on how to reduce planetary warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius will remain at the heart of the discussion.
Australia’s Lack of Commitment
Despite watching the positive response from the twenty state leaders who spoke before him, Scott Morrison’s speech notably diverged from the themes of the summit. Morrison placed considerable emphasis on Australia’s achievement of its Kyoto 2020 commitments, despite them containing comparatively lenient targets that allowed Canberra to count its avoided land clearing as a part of its contribution. Meanwhile, other nations took to the opportunity to urge greater cooperation in face of the common threat climate change poses, which only served to highlight Morrison’s defensive reiteration of Australia’s success. Most notably, Beijing was quick to commit to working closer with Washington on their targets and pledged a strict limit on China’s increasing coal consumption over the next five years, as well as the aim of reaching net-zero emission by 2060. Similarly, Boris Johnson firmly committed the United Kingdom to a 78 per cent cut in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2035. Whereas Japan and Canada followed US targets closely by announcing similar emissions reduction rates of between 40 – 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.
While the absence of a sense of Australian mateship was evident in Morrison’s speech, the fundamental issue lies in the inadequacy of its proposal towards tackling climate change. Australia remains the world’s largest exporter of coal, accounting for 55 per cent of the world’s supply in 2019. The pledge that technology alone will be enough to transform primary industries into sustainable ventures is significantly short-sighted. Investment into sustainable technology is not enough to reduce the impact non-renewable industries’ have on the environment before 2050. The focus on developing what Morrison coined a ‘Hydrogen Valley’, the equivalent of Silicon Valley in the US, is based on the idea that Australia will produce the “cheapest clean hydrogen in the world”, which will transform transport industries, mining and resource sectors, manufacturing, fuel and energy production. However, Morrison failed to address the fact that technological innovation is not fast enough or implementable quickly enough to see the level of changes to emissions needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius a year. It is this highly time-sensitive aspect of global warming that Morrison’s address failed to encapsulate, namely through the blatant reiteration that the question of ‘when’ Australia will achieve its climate goals is not important.
Aside from missing the mark on the urgency of climate change, Morrison’s emphasis on the Technology Investment Roadmap initiative helps explain Canberra’s high levels of technology investment in the lead up to the summit. The investment of $275 million in regional hydrogen hubs and $263.7 million for carbon capture, storage projects and hubs, was welcomed but largely out of character for Canberra. Sustained levels of similar investment would be needed to ensure that Morrison’s technology initiative is followed through and able to facilitate the Paris 2030 goals.
However, while high levels of investment into sustainable technology initiatives suggests Australia is feeling pressure to come to the climate change party, critics have been quick to identify the limitations of the technology. Many scientists argue that the technology that has been commissioned, namely carbon capture and storage, is not a sustainable and practical solution. This is because it is aimed at extending the life of fossil-fuel-powered industries by lessening the impact of the carbon they output, rather than finding alternatives to the mining industry altogether. The government's pledged investment is therefore a short-term solution to the enduring unsustainability of Australia’s fossil-fuel industries. Canberra would be wise to reassess their approach given the open commitment of China, Japan and India to reducing their coal consumption at the Summit, all of whom are major export trading partners. Additionally, this comes alongside Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State’s warning prior to the Summit that significant producers, investors and consumers of coal and those who allow mass deforestation will be reprimanded by the US.
Everything aside, Morrison is correct in stating that Australia is on track to achieving its 2030 Paris agreement commitments. However, its targets are notably low compared to other nations at between26 – 28 per cent reduction in emissions. Given the amplified commitment from the global community at the Leaders Summit to address global warming, Australia’s blatant refusal to reconsider targets or timeframes is a significant point of contention. Commitment to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions is important for not only climate change, but the stability of the international community through shared values and goals. Following Morrison’s speech, Canberra needs to reassess perceptions of its weak alignment with rhetoric on climate change and resolve the lost opportunity to bolster strong relations with important regional players and allies on a shared and enduring issue. As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres asserted at the Summit, 2021 is a “make or break year for people and the planet” and Australia would do well to remember its commitment to both.
Bronte Munro is a Masters student of Security and Strategic Studies at The University of Macquarie. She has a Bachelor of International and Global Studies with majors in International Business and European Studies from The University of Sydney. Bronte has interests in cyber security and was awarded the US Consul General Policy Report Award for analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on US cyber policy. Other interests include US and Russian foreign policy and Timor Leste - Australian relations.