Australian PM faces pressure on climate policy but has to deal with resistance in ruling coalition

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has steered clear of any move to put a price on carbon emissions.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has steered clear of any move to put a price on carbon emissions.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing resistance within his ruling Liberal-National coalition to adopt stronger climate policies, just as he comes under growing international pressure to act.

A long-time opponent of strong action on climate change, Mr Morrison has recently shown a willingness to move - albeit gradually - towards a net zero emissions target.

Earlier this month, he signalled to being open to adopting a zero emissions target - a course embraced by growing numbers of major economies but resisted by the ruling coalition in Australia.

Addressing the National Press Club earlier this month, Mr Morrison did not commit to a firm target but stated: "Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050."

This was a significant change for the prime minister, who famously once brought a lump of coal into Parliament to mock the opposition Labor party's push to curb pollution. Australia is one of the world's biggest carbon emitters per capita and is currently not on track to meet its 2030 emissions reduction targets, even though many analysts believe these targets are inadequate.

Despite Mr Morrison's recent change in rhetoric, he faces fierce opposition within his own ranks. Several MPs from the National party, the rural-based junior member of the coalition, have responded by calling for new investment in the coal sector and for the mining and agriculture sectors to be shielded from any moves to adopt new emission reduction targets.

A prominent Nationals MP, Mr Barnaby Joyce, threatened last week to vote against the government if it tries to introduce measures to meet a 2050 target. He expressed concern that farmers may have to pay for methane emissions from cattle and other livestock, which account for some 10 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions.

"I want to see what the plan is before I make any decisions about whether we are part of this or not," he told ABC Radio.

Mr Morrison is under pressure to act because Australia's main allies and trading partners have signalled that they want stronger international action on climate change.

New United States President Joe Biden has explicitly vowed to push countries to adopt stronger emissions targets and is convening a summit of global leaders in April to discuss climate change.

The British Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, reportedly plans to use international summits such as the G7 - or Group of Seven advanced economies - to introduce carbon tariffs for emissions-intensive imports from countries with weak climate policies. The European Union is pushing ahead with similar tariffs.

But Mr Morrison's coalition has strongly opposed such moves and indicated it will oppose both Mr Johnson's and the European Union's efforts.

Senior unnamed sources cited by the Sydney Morning Herald said Canberra would argue that carbon tariffs undermined proposed free trade deals with both London and Brussels.

"The Morrison government will argue carbon tariffs are not aimed at combating climate change, but rather at economic objectives including protecting local industries such as British and European meat, cheese and wine," the report said.

Despite Mr Morrison signalling that he may embrace a zero emissions target, he has steered clear of any move to put a price on carbon emissions. Instead, he has suggested that new technology would enable Australia to reduce emissions. He was also reportedly considering making any reduction targets voluntary, rather than binding.

Commentators have denounced these plans, saying that specific targets and a price on carbon were the most efficient ways to reduce emissions and to provide certainty to the business community.

But Mr Morrison clearly remains reluctant to commit to a firm stance. He is keenly aware that party infighting over climate policy has led to the downfall of a series of Australian leaders on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, Mr Morrison's own ascent to the leadership of the Liberal party in 2018 was enabled by the ousting of his predecessor, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, following an internal party dispute over energy policy.