Inside Story

Scott Morrison’s climate curse hasn’t gone away

Covid-19 might have rescued the Coalition from criticisms of its climate policies, but it can’t dodge them forever

Tristan Edis 6 August 2020 943 words

Setting the pace: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, seen here at the Colwyck Training Center in Delaware last month, is campaigning for a low-carbon recovery. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

As Victorians go into an even more severe lockdown and the rest of the country grapples with the economic fallout of Covid-19, it may be hard to believe that any issue other than health and the economy could emerge as a major political headache for the government. But stewing away in the background are international developments that mean climate change is likely to re-emerge to haunt Scott Morrison sometime soon.

The Covid-19 crisis has been a lifeline for the government. During the last election the prime minister didn’t define his government by what it would do if re-elected, but rather by what it would not do. It got the government over the line, but after the election he and his colleagues appeared rudderless. And then, within months of the election, he was besieged by sustained criticism over his inaction on climate change as a terrifying bushfire season began.

Morrison’s response to Covid-19 couldn’t provide a greater contrast. While managing the health risks of an epidemic is generally the responsibility of state government — just like the bushfires — the PM wasn’t about to sit back this time. He was quick to take a position, if not at the head of the pack, then not far behind. In terms of the economic response, he unleashed a flood of government assistance that dwarves Kevin Rudd’s stimulus spending during the global financial crisis. The electorate appears to approve, and federal Labor has largely been relegated to being a bit player in the unfolding crisis.

But while Covid-19 has given Morrison a chance to shine, it has been a curse for the re-election chances of Donald Trump. The American president’s strategy for re-election was built entirely on a claim that he single-handedly reinvigorated the economy, a claim now in complete tatters. According to the polling analysts at FiveThirtyEight, the race between Trump and Joe Biden is “verging on a landside” to Biden. Of course, a week — let alone several months — is a long time in politics, but things look very bad for Trump.

And that means the climate change denial wing of the Morrison government may be about to lose the card it believes trumps all calls for action.

It is hard to overstate Trump’s importance to the denialist wing of the Liberal and National parties in its fight for a policy that almost no major Australian stakeholder wants. Even the biggest polluters in the country — Origin, AGL, EnergyAustralia and other owners of coal-fired power stations — want an emissions trading scheme (as the National Energy Guarantee effectively was). And so do the large energy consumers represented by the Australian Industry Group and the Energy Users’ Association; charity groups representing the poor and disadvantaged; the financial sector; and even big mining, oil and gas companies like BHP, BP and Shell.

Across Europe and even Trump’s United States, meanwhile, coal is in severe decline. According to the federal government’s own forecasts, Asia’s demand for coal, which had been dramatically expanding, is also expected to fall. Perhaps most ominous for the coalminers is the share market’s judgement: the Dow Jones US Coal Index is down a staggering 92 per cent on its peak back in May 2018, during a period in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen 9 per cent.

Having Trump in the White House has allowed members of the Coalition’s climate change denial wing to block out all this inconvenient information. They can point to him and claim that Australia can safely ignore the Paris Agreement because without US involvement the deal is meaningless.

But last month Joe Biden unveiled what he plans to do if he replaces Trump, and it makes for an uncomfortable contrast with the Morrison government’s position.

Biden will seek to legislate a scheme to gradually ratchet up the proportion of electricity coming from zero-emission sources (renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency) to 100 per cent by 2035. By comparison, the Morrison government argued during the election that Labor’s commitment to 50 per cent renewables would “deindustrialise” and “wreck” the economy. (Strangely, the government is now boasting that Australia will achieve that target.)

Biden announced that he will aim to put the American economy on a path to zero net emissions by 2050 — a target Labor has adopted, but which the deputy prime minister claims would destroy Australian manufacturing. Biden said he will revitalise the American auto industry by stimulating the production of electric vehicles and rolling out half a million electric vehicle charging stations; Morrison declared that Labor’s electric vehicle plans would “end the weekend” (yes, he really did say that).

Australia is already under pressure from other countries unhappy with its reluctance to reduce emissions. Negotiations with Britain for a free-trade agreement are said to have hit a snag over Britain’s insistence on clauses requiring action to reduce carbon emissions, and the same problems have emerged in Australia’s trade negotiations with the European Union. Just in the past few weeks the European Union unveiled a Covid-19 recovery program of more than a trillion dollars emphasising projects to decarbonise member countries’ industries. To help fund this stimulus Brussels is moving ahead with a tax on imports from countries with lower carbon emissions standards than Europe’s.

A climate policy built on three-word slogans like Angus Taylor’s “technology not taxes” isn’t going to fool the European Union or the United States. A convincing policy needs to be backed by billions of dollars in funding to drive serious reductions in our use of fossil fuels. Covid-19 has bought the government time on climate change policy, but it hasn’t granted it a permanent exemption. •