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Australian PM's office omits net zero emissions from account of Morrison's talk with Johnson

Katharine Murphy
·5 min read

Scott Morrison has declared the British government understands that Australia’s mid century emissions reduction targets will not be set by London or by Europe, because Boris Johnson embarked on his own act of “sovereignty” by withdrawing the UK from the European Union.

The Australian PM’s comments followed the release of official readouts – with different emphases – after a conversation about climate change between the two leaders on Tuesday night.

According to the British readout, Johnson “stressed that we need bold action to address climate change, noting that the UK’s experience demonstrates that driving economic growth and reducing emissions can go hand in hand”.

“Looking ahead to the Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December and Cop26 in Glasgow next year, [Johnson] emphasised the importance of setting ambitious targets to cut emissions and reach net zero.”

Related: Overwhelming majority believe Australia is already experiencing climate change

The British account said the two leaders agreed to intensify the partnership between the UK and Australia on developing and scaling up green technologies.

The Australian record has a different emphasis.

It said Johnson had “welcomed our significant increase in emissions reduction programs announced through the budget, and strongly endorsed our focus on unlocking practical pathways to reducing emissions”.

“Both countries agreed to work closely together to accelerate research and deployment of low-emission technologies ahead of Cop26.”

Australia has thus far declined to adopt a net zero target. Morrison told reporters he was “very aware of the many views held around the world, but I tell you what, our policies will be set here in Australia”.

While implicitly referencing the differences, Australia’s prime minister said “one thing the British prime minister and I agree on is that achieving emissions reductions shouldn’t come at the cost of jobs in Australia or the UK”.

The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, also played down the significance of the difference in wording, saying the Morrison statement had been prepared “in response to media requests” and Australia was strongly committed to the Paris agreement.

Under questioning at a Senate estimates committee hearing on Wednesday, Payne said it was not reasonable to expect her to “interpret between the lines” but she understood it was “a very good and positive call”.

Payne said the Morrison readout referred to their discussion about responding to the Covid-19 challenge, whereas the Johnson readout did not – but she was not about to suggest the British readout was inaccurate or misleading.

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, told Payne that “no amount of words and no amount of adjectives … can hide the fact that your government is increasingly isolated internationally on climate”.

Climate change in Britain is not the divisive issue it is in Australia, and has not created ructions for the Conservative party in the same way it has with the Liberal and National parties in Australia.

The UK has prioritised climate action, and in 2019 became the first G7 country to legislate a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since 1990, the UK has reduced emissions by more than 40%, while the economy has grown by around 70%.

The British government has privately appealed to senior Coalition figures – including the energy minister, Angus Taylor, and Payne – to develop a more ambitious climate policy.

The Morrison government is a signatory to the Paris agreement, and has a 2030 emissions reduction target of between 26% and 28% on 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

But the government is continuing to resist pressure to sign up to a target of net zero emissions by 2050 – even though net zero is an increasingly uncontroversial abatement target.

More than 70 countries and 398 cities say they have adopted a net zero position. Every Australian state has signed up to net zero emissions by 2050, and these commitments are expressed either as targets or aspirational goals.

Net zero has also been adopted by business groups in Australia who only a few years ago opposed Labor’s carbon pricing scheme.

The Australian Climate Roundtable, which includes the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia, the ACTU, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Council of Social Service, issued a statement late last year supporting policies requiring “deep global emissions reductions, with most countries including Australia eventually reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero or below”.

Morrison says the government’s approach to abatement will be based on technology rather than “taxes” and the government is developing a roadmap to guide the transition. The government has identified “clean” hydrogen, energy storage, “low-carbon” steel and aluminium, carbon capture and storage and soil carbon as priority technologies.

The prime minister said on Wednesday the most important element of the conversation on Tuesday night was a joint agreement with the UK on technology sharing “to ensure that these technologies won’t only work in Australia, and in the United Kingdom, but they can work in India, that they can work in China, that they can work in Vietnam – that they can work in those countries, which will have rapidly rising emissions over the next decade”.

Related: Japan's net zero by 2050 pledge another warning to Australia on fossil fuels, analysts say

The Australian readout characterised the conversation between the two leaders as “warm” and the British record referred to the “longstanding friendship and partnership between the UK and Australia”.

Apart from the conversation about climate change, the British record said the leaders “agreed on the importance of like-minded states working together to tackle global issues, including building open societies, strengthening democratic values and boosting free and fair trade”.

The Australian record referred to the “critical importance of likeminded countries working much more closely together – bilaterally, in other groupings and multilaterally – in the face of sharper geostrategic competition and a more uncertain strategic environment”, and also contained a reference to discussing “increasing cooperation on multilateral candidacies”.

The outgoing finance minister, Mathias Cormann, is Australia’s candidate to be the next secretary-general of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The OECD has previously criticised Australia for its performance on climate change. Its membership is dominated by European countries and Australia’s climate change contribution has been queried by those with more ambitious emissions reduction commitments.

Cormann last week talked up the importance of pursuing “a green recovery with an increased reliance on renewables” in remarks to a business conference organised by the German government.