Australia’s vague approach to climate change will cost our economy, expert says

By Melissa Coade

Thursday April 22, 2021

climate change
On his first day in office, President Biden announced the US would be recommitting to the Paris Agreement, (Image: AAP)

Australia’s climate change policies are regarded as ‘insufficient’ by the Biden administration, which will use a summit to announce a new target for US carbon emissions by 2030.

On the eve of US President Joe Biden’s summit to tackle the world’s climate crisis, Australia’s position remains disappointing, RMIT’s Dr Emma Shortis has said.

Speaking to The Mandarin ahead of the two-day leaders’ summit, she observed that how the US responds to Australia’s weak action on climate change will be telling.

“Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinkin, has issued some pretty strongly worded statements around the kind of pressure that the US will bring to bear on allies that aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to climate change,” Dr Shortis says.

“Even if they don’t say it specifically, there are potentially significant consequences for Australia in this big shift that is happening across the world.”

On his first day in office, President Biden announced the US would be recommitting to the Paris Agreement, and quickly moved to convene the summit

A statement from the White House said that the summit aimed to underscore the urgency and economic benefits of stronger climate action. It also had the specific goal of ‘limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change’. 

“The summit will also highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts,” the White House said.

Dr Shortis is an historian specialising in US foreign policy and the role of the US in global environmental politics. She says the Morrison government has given no indication of responding to America’s call to action with the kind of pragmatism the US President wants to see.

“It’s continuing a long history of the conservative side of Australian politics making climate change into a culture war and kind of obscuring the bigger moral questions that are in play here.

“You see that as well in the use of these very technical, detailed policy announcements around technological developments like hydrogen, which obscure those bigger moral questions about the potential death of the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Shortis explains.

On Wednesday the PM announced $539.2 million to support development of four new clean hydrogen hubs and additional carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) projects, hubs and technologies.

Mr Morrison then revealed an extra $565.8 million would be used to fund a series of new international low emissions technology partnerships the following day.

Australia’s policy to use low emissions technology as a meaningful response to climate change is not enough, Dr Shortis argues. She views this week’s big funding announcements as meaning little for the specific policy targets on climate change that Australia needs to commit.

“The prime minister basically hides behind these kind of vague policy pronouncements and hopes that that will be enough to help Australia get through the summit without too much scrutiny,” Dr Shortis says.

“The question is, how is someone like John Kerry, who is incredibly experienced in that kind of detailed policy wonk talk around climate change, how much they’ll be willing to indulge that or not.”

Mr Morrison will attend the virtual climate summit with other world leaders on Friday (AEST), coinciding with Earth Day.

The Australian government’s decision not to take action to address climate change is part of a decades’ long lag in environmental leadership, which Dr Shortis sees as brazen. She believes Australia’s strategy at the summit will be to hide behind tokenistic policies and hope that some of Biden’s radical vision for swift collective change cannot be realised, even on its own domestic front.

“Australian people might be embarrassed but I don’t think the Australian government is embarrassed at all. They’re quite committed to their position and they’re happy to take it to the international stage,” Dr Shortis says.

“What the Australian government might be banking on is that Biden, as has happened to previous Democratic administrations in the US, is not going to be able to follow through on the adoption of those policies.

“So they’ll be looking at congress and Biden’s very slim majority in the senate and hoping that any international pressure that is brought to bear is going to be relatively short-lived,” she adds.

Senior US officials are hoping Mr Morrison will make a more ambitious announcement beyond his focus on low emissions technology, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

According to the White House, the priority of the summit and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), to be held in Glasgow later this year, is to ‘catalyse efforts that keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach’.

A big shift is already taking place among some of Australia’s global trading partners with the EU’s adoption of a carbon border adjustment mechanism likely to reshape global supply chains.

It’s not just the EU, it’s the UK now, it’s the US, Japan, Canada, Korea and China – they are all major trading partners […] focused on things like coal-fired power. That has huge implications of the Australian economy,” Dr Shortis says.

“If the Australian government is refusing to engage in that process and refusing to initiate the necessary reforms to protect the Australian economy – there are significant consequences for us.

“The government keeps saying that the economy and trade are crucial issues but it’s not acting to protect the economy from what is coming.”

Dr Shortis says she is waiting to see how the US, UK and EU respond to Australia’s approach to the COP26 leading up to the November event.

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