CANBERRA (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short of endorsing a 2050 target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions ahead of US President Joe Biden's climate summit this week.
In a speech on Monday (April 19), he said only that Australia, one of the highest per-capita carbon emitters among the world's richest nations, will achieve net zero "as quickly as possible and preferably by 2050".
"We don't make commitments lightly in this country. We prepare our plan to achieve them and then we follow through," Mr Morrison said at a major business event in Sydney.
Analysts took those comments as a sign Australia would not commit to ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets at the virtual summit on April 22-23, defying pressure from the United States.
"This is a federal government that will do the absolute minimum required to just keep its seat at the table, but do nothing beyond that," said Mr Richie Merzian, climate and energy director at The Australia Institute think-tank.
Modest emissions targets worked for Australia while Mr Donald Trump was in the White House, but the country now faces heavy pressure from the Biden administration to phase out fossil fuels.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday his diplomats would challenge countries whose inaction thwarted efforts to fight climate change.
Mr Morrison is hard-pressed to do anything that would undermine Australia's position as the world's top exporter of coal and second largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) even as most of the country's allies and the biggest buyers of its coal and gas - China, Japan and South Korea - have committed to net zero by mid-century.
He has resisted calls from Australia's biggest companies, including its top gas producers, to set a carbon price or a net zero by 2050 target, both seen as essential to help create investment certainty during the energy transition.
"The key to meeting our climate change ambitions is commercialisation of low-emissions technology. We are not going to meet our climate change targets through punishing taxes. I am not going to tax our industries off the planet," Mr Morrison said.
He must walk a fine line as climate change sceptics were a key force in deposing his predecessor, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, as prime minister in 2018.
"He has to be mindful that he is the prime minister of a coalition that includes elements who are fearful of aggressive climate action," said Dr Haydon Manning, a political science professor at Flinders University in South Australia state.
"But he has to move a substantial way to meet the US demands, which no prime minister of Australia has faced in years."
Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to cut its carbon emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Under a plan to invest A$18 billion (S$18.6 billion) in technology this decade, the government expects to achieve a 29 per cent reduction.
Sources say the United States will pledge to cut its emissions by at least half at the summit.
Australia's Clean Energy Council wants the government to set a timeline for closing the country's coal-fired power plants.
"If we are on track to achieve net zero by 2050 that does mean all of our coal generation needs to close," said Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton.