Australia makes carbon emissions pledge but remains wedded to fossil fuels

PM Scott Morrison says net zero emissions by 2050 will be achieved ‘the Australian way’

Australia’s prime minister has unveiled plans to decarbonise the country’s economy by 2050, while insisting it would not phase out the production or use of polluting fossil fuels.

Outlining a policy document just days ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow, prime minister Scott Morrison committed Australia to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, bowing to international pressure and following a host of developed and emerging economies that have already done so.

However, the plan also made clear that Australia would continue its reliance on fossil fuels, to the dismay of green groups which say phasing them out is key to credible decarbonisation goals.

Fossil fuels accounted for more than 90 per cent of Australia’s primary energy mix in 2019-20, with renewable energy sources making up just 7 per cent, according to government figures.


Mr Morrison also stuck to his refusal to update Australia’s formal 2030 emissions reduction target, which was submitted to the UN under the Paris Agreement.

Net zero would be achieved “the Australian way ... through technology not taxes”, Mr Morrison said on Tuesday. This meant “respecting people’s choices and not enforcing mandates on what people can do and buy ... [while also] keeping our industries and regions running”.

Australia would not “shut down coal or gas production or exports” with demand continuing “for many years to come”, according to the policy plan.

International pressure

The announcement comes less than a week before the most important global climate summit since the Paris meeting in 2015, at which countries will be pressed to commit to phasing out the use of coal.

The Morrison government has been under international pressure to commit to meaningful climate change measures, including from Cop26 president Alok Sharma. Mr Morrison said on Tuesday that the country "won't be lectured by others who don't understand Australia".

Critics said his net zero plans lacked clarity and were heavily reliant on the development of technologies such as hydrogen energy and carbon capture and storage.

Chris Bowen, an Australian Labor Party MP and shadow climate change minister, said he had seen "more detailed fortune cookies than the document released by the government today".

Richard Black, senior associate at the Energy & Climate Change Intelligence Unit, said the move was the result of "international pressure and international demand, rather than something the government really wants to do".

Australia was “in the same camp very much as the Saudis” in presenting “an alternative vision of how you can get to net zero” while still burning fossil fuels, Mr Black said. Whether there would be a market for those fuels in the decades to come, as renewables continued to get cheaper, was uncertain, he added.

Thomas Hale, professor of public policy at Oxford university's Blavatnik School of Government, called on Mr Morrison to outline what "concrete steps the government will take to drive down emissions in the short term" as well as update the 2030 target.

Although G20 countries agreed in July to submit new 2030 targets to the UN ahead of Cop26, Morrison said Australia would not break "the pledge we made at the last election" by doing so. Australia's goal, set in 2016, is for a 26 to 28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

New industries

Under the net zero plan, technologies such as hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and solar energy would reduce the country’s emissions by about 40 per cent by 2050. Changing global trends, such as the switch to electric vehicles, would drive down emissions by another 15 per cent.

The growth of new industries, such as clean hydrogen and green steel, would create more than 100,000 jobs by 2050 while the government would invest A$20billion (€13 billion) over a decade on “low emissions technology”, unlocking a further A$80 billion of private and public investment.

The plan also said that a tenth of Australia’s emissions, including those from the continued fossil fuel use, would be compensated for using carbon offsets.

Offsets have faced repeated criticism for not delivering the full climate benefits they claimed to. The Science Based Targets initiative, which helps companies set goals in line with the Paris Agreement, has banned offsets from counting towards corporate net zero goals. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021