Free trade reckoning awaits Australia after Morrison’s Glasgow copout

Nov 5, 2021
Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson at COP26.
Australia risks facing sanctions if it doesn't do better on climate change. (Image: Flickr/Number 10)

The PM was on the front foot in Rome and Glasgow, but his troubles with the rest of the world over Australia’s emissions target are just beginning.

In common with most of those significant world political leaders who bothered to turn up in Glasgow for COP 26 — where more than 20,000 gathered for what their host Boris Johnson had billed as a five minutes to midnight last-chance to save the planet — Scott Morrison on Wednesday, day three, was high above the clouds in his official jet and homeward bound. By then, the British prime minister was back in 10 Downing Street, preparing for parliamentary questions, and not expected to be resuming his leadership the discussions in Scotland, while president Joe Biden was halfway across the Atlantic being briefed on Air Force One on problems ahead in Congress.

Which is a pity, because day 3 of COP26 was proving to be the most interesting. It was finance day, and provided for some modest optimism. Surprising perhaps, given that many environmentalists, academics, climate change activists nurse a not wholly unjustified view of bankers, investors and the financial community generally as harbingers of fossil fuels, backing big oil and gas, and providing debt finance for coal projects like the controversial Carmichael mine in Queensland.

But Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of England, announced in Glasgow that the group of financial firms he now represents worth $US130 trillion had agreed to use their clout to force measures to get net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Simultaneously, the body responsible for international accountancy standards announced it would set up a board to develop and impose minimum sustainability disclosure requirements for companies throughout the world. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s designed to prevent so-called greenwashing whereby companies only present their attitudes towards climate change and sustainability in a favourable light. The new rules will have to be agreed internationally, and then by individual nations, but can be seen as a small step in the right direction. More immediately, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak followed up by announcing Britain will make it mandatory for companies to publish a clear deliverable plan setting out how they intend to move their companies to net zero.

The combined impact of these measures — if they can be made to work — is likely to be more than the sum of us achieved by the world leaders in the first two days where the outcomes fell far short of hopes and aspirations, but perhaps slightly ahead of expectations. Morrison did little to change Australia’s reputation as a climate change laggard, although at least he did turn up which earned him some credit against the likes of China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was disingenuous, and insulting, for Morrison to suggest decisions on climate change would largely be taken by those not in the Glasgow audience, but by “our scientists, our technologists, our engineers, our entrepreneurs, our industrialists and our financiers that will actually chart the path to net zero.” It was, in fact, those in the room (including Morrison himself) that backed Tuesday’s major decision to halt the destruction of the world’s forests. It was a similar group of leaders, but excluding Morrison, who agreed a protocol to limit lethal methane emissions.

COP26 followed hard on the heels of a G20 summit in Rome, where Morrison had sided with leading greenhouse gas emitters China, Russia and India in refusing to curb coal-fired power generation. So it was not surprising the Australian prime minister found himself the butt of criticism from many of the 20,000 delegates attending the United Nations event in Glasgow.

He hit trouble on the first day of the two-week long conference, when the UK opposition Labour Party announced it would renegotiate the recently agreed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Australia because of the Morrison government’s policies.

Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, fired the first shot at the Australian prime minister shortly after the conference opened. He complained that UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had meekly bowed to Australia’s demands by removing references to climate change from the draft agreement.

The scientific consensus is that global emissions must be halved by 2030 to bring climate change under control. That would require a reduction of 28 billion tonnes of emissions, though current commitments amount to a reduction of only 4 billion tonnes. The world needs to put maximum pressure on the major emitters to act now, said Miliband. He pointed to Australia, which has a mid-century target of net zero by 2050, saying its 2030 target would take them to 4 degrees Celsius of warming, a catastrophic level for planet Earth.

Significantly, the proposal to cancel the UK-Australia FTA was backed by Lord Deeben, a prominent Conservative and former cabinet minister and current chairman of the climate change committee that advises the Johnson government. He said: “We should not be signing trade treaties with countries like Australia and removing from that treaty the very kind of demands we should be making on that country.”

In a swipe at Johnson over the FTA, he said that people should know that it is everybody’s responsibility to fight climate change and meet net zero. He added that you cannot expect farmers to achieve that while allowing other countries to export food into Britain that has been produced without those costs. “That’s not fair and it’s what the government said it would not do, but then allowed in Australian and New Zealand FTAs”.

If Morrison felt that he had been singled out as the bête noir of COP26 he did not show it. Earlier, on departing the G20 leaders’ meeting in Rome, he sought to align Australia with developing nations and their need for cheap access to new technologies to help them combat climate change. He claimed a special understanding of their requirements because of Australia’s location in the South Pacific and proximity to South-East Asia, and made a point of mentioning his alignment with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, one of the few leaders with whom he had a bilateral discussion while in Rome.

The following day Morrison addressed the opening plenary session in Glasgow. He was strident, almost defiant, and certainly not defensive. His message was familiar and clear about ‘’The Australian Way’’. That way, he said, is not to cut coal or dependency on oil and gas, swapping petrol and diesel vehicles for electric motors, but to embrace new technology. “We will solve climate change the way we’ve grappled with Covid.”

Morrison noted that by 2030 Australian emissions would fall by 35 per cent, exceeding the Paris commitment. He doubled to $2 billion the country’s financial commitment to the Pacific community and South-East Asia. “Looking forward, we are forging technology partnerships domestically and abroad —with Singapore, Germany, the UK, Japan, Korea and Indonesia — and we are close to concluding one with India.”

Morrison made no significant concessions to his opponents in Glasgow except to sign up to a pact to halt and reverse the loss of the world’s forests by 2030. The deal will be backed by a pledge from 30 of the world’s major financial institutions to eliminate investment in agricultural commodity-linked woodland destruction by 2025. Among some 100 nations to sign up to the pact in addition to Australia, were Brazil, Canada, Russia, Indonesia, the US and the European Union.  Other notable developments include an announcement by Japan of a $10 billion contribution to help developing countries confront climate change, with Australia adding $500 million to bring its contribution to $2 billion; a $1 billion investment by the European Union in hydrogen technology; and an agreement by a group of Western nations to provide South Africa with $8.5 billion to speed the end of coal in power generation.

Finally, Biden and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced their commitment to reduce methane pollution by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. Methane is a serious pollutant and is a bigger contributor to global warming than CO2, but Australia is not in supporting the pledge.

That will wind him friends in the cattle and dairy industries who see a move against methane as it threat. But the Australia UK free-trade agreement has still to be approved by the House of Commons, and there are more than a few Conservatives who think is far too generous towards Australia, and support UK backbench moves to get it cancelled. That would be something from Morrison to worry about.

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