CANBERRA – Australia’s opposition party said on Wednesday a looming election will be fought on greenhouse gas reduction targets as Prime Minister Scott Morrison comes under criticism from scientists over the modest goals he will take to a U.N. climate summit.
Morrison has been left no room to move on Australia’s 2030 reduction target under a deal struck this week with his conservative government’s rural-based junior coalition partner, the Nationals party.
The Nationals have agreed to support the ruling Liberal Party’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 in return for Australia sticking to its 6-year-old target of reducing emissions by only 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
The Nationals, once a farmers’ party that has increasingly become an advocate for fossil fuel industries, has exerted its influence on Morrison as U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres lamented that a “leadership gap” was undermining the world’s efforts to curb global warming.
The center-left opposition Labor Party’s spokesman on climate change and energy, Chris Bowen, said competing climate policies would become a battle line at the next election, which is due by May.
“There will be a contest on climate at the next election,” Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“Scott Morrison has sort of for weeks said we might try and get bipartisanship. Clearly, he doesn’t have any policy which is going to attract bipartisanship,” Bowen added.
Morrison said the next election would provide “a clear choice on who do people trust with the right economic plan” to achieve net zero.
Morrison said he will take to the summit known as COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, projections that Australia will reduce its emissions by 35% by 2030, exceeding his government’s modest targets.
Climate scientists point out that this reduction would be achieved almost entirely by Australian state and territory governments that have committed to their own net zero targets.
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquified natural gas. Those exports would continue under a plan outlined by Morrison that would protect jobs and achieve net zero through technology without making polluters pay.
Lesley Hughes, an Australian academic and former lead author of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports in 2007 and 2015, described Australia’s 2030 ambitions as “one of the weakest targets in the developed world.”
“Frankly, if this wasn’t such a serious matter for all life on earth, I would say it’s a joke,” Hughes said, referring to Morrison’s net zero plan.
“The government’s had eight years to come up with a plan, yet nothing in the plan indicates a serious move to transition away from the fossil fuels that got us into this problem in the first place,” she added.
Since the conservative coalition was first elected in 2013, the government’s policies had been to delay action on climate change, she said.
Morrison was a Cabinet minister in 2014 when a newly elected government repealed Australia’s 2-year-old carbon tax. Government climate policies since have rejected any measures that would make polluters pay for their emissions.
Morrison’s government was narrowly reelected in 2019 with strong voter support from coal-rich Queensland state.
Morrison had gone to the election with the 2030 reduction target it had adopted in 2015 at the Paris climate summit. Labor had promised a 45% target, which the government argued would wreck the economy.
The government also rejected Labor’s longer-term target which is now bilaterally endorsed: net zero by 2050.
The Australian Election Study, which has surveyed voters after every election since 1987, found voter concern about the environment was at its greatest during the 2019 poll.
Labor wants to see what decisions are made in Glasgow before announcing its new 2030 targets.
The government has yet to release the modeling upon which its net zero plan is based.
Ian McAllister, an Australian National University political scientist who co-authored the Australian Election Study report on the last election, said the environment was gaining importance as an election issue.
“Bowen is probably right in the sense that there is a pent-up demand for action on climate change,” McAllister said.
“The coalition has always had a consistent advantage on economic management over Labor. So if the issue is cast as one of how do we economically manage this transition to sustainable resources, then the coalition is going to get an advantage,” he said.
“If it is seen to be principally non-economic, then I would have thought Labor’s in with a good chance of winning that issue,” he added.