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Australia PM announces net zero pledge, but no new emissions cuts ahead of COP26

By Angela Dewan, Ben Westcott and Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has revealed the plan he’ll take to COP26 in Glasgow later this week after coming under intense pressure at home and abroad to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Dozens of countries have already put forward plans to reach net-zero — where greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and any remaining emissions are removed from the atmosphere — ahead of the climate talks which begin on Sunday.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Morrison said his government would achieved net-zero by 2050 “the Australian way” by balancing the risk of climate change without damaging the economy.

“Australians want action on climate change, they’re taking action on climate change but they also want to protect their jobs and their livelihoods,” Morrison said. “Our plan charts a uniquely Australian way that recognizes the challenges … It’s a fair plan, it’s a practical plan, it’s a responsible plan.”

But experts said the plan lacks detail about how Australia will achieve net zero by 2050 and fails to drastically reduce or end Australia’s mining of fossil fuels, a major revenue earner for one of world’s biggest coal exporters.

In Tuesday’s long-awaited announcement, Morrison touted the country’s achievements, saying it had already achieved a 20% reduction in emissions since 2005, as he laid out plans as to how the remaining 80% will accomplished through existing policies and new, as yet undeveloped technologies.

Of the total, 40% will come from Australia’s “Technology Investment Roadmap” announced by the government last year, which includes a $20 billion investment in low emissions technologies by 2030.

Another 15% will come from “global technology trends,” including livestock feed supplements and low emissions cement, and further 15% will come from “further technology breakthroughs,” including negative emissions technologies yet to be developed.

It’s envisaged the 10-20% will come from “international and domestic offsets.”

Morrison assured regional Australians the plan would not cost jobs in “farming, mining or gas.” In fact, it includes 62,000 new mining and heavy industry jobs.

“It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports, it will not impact households or businesses or the broader economy,” Morrison said. He also said the net zero target would not be legislated.

Fanfare, little substance

Analysts were scathing in their immediate assessment of the plan.

Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in Fire Ecology at Murdoch University, said the policy had “all the strength of a wet paper bag.”

“Taking such a hollow policy to Glasgow will further solidify Australia’s reputation as a climate laggard and cheater dating back to Kyoto in 1997,” he said.

Bill Hare, a physicist, climate scientist and CEO of non-profit science and policy institute Climate Analytics, said the plan lacks detail and there is “absolutely no way” it will help Australia reach net zero by 2050.

“It just doesn’t stack up,” he said.

“The so-called technology roadmap has no real detail to it. That’s the largest part of their proposed pathway to 2050. And to the best that we understand it’s essentially relying on carbon capture and storage and other approaches, which have been shown not to work. So at this stage, I think it’s bordering on being a scam, frankly.”

Australia’s climate action advocacy group, the Climate Council, welcomed the 2050 net zero target as “long overdue” but said it would be “a joke without strong emissions cuts.”

“Australia desperately needs to dramatically scale up renewable energy, phase out coal and gas and electrify our transport systems. Otherwise we miss out on the economic opportunities of the global transition and expose ourselves to the fire, flood and heat risks of climate change,” said Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie in a statement.

The Climate Council has previously recommended Australia aim for emissions reductions of 75% by 2030, almost triple Morrison’s current target.

No new targets for 2030

Morrison did not announce any new commitments Tuesday to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

However, he repeated the government’s mantra that Australia is “meeting and beating” its 2030 target of cutting emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels — emissions would be cut by 35% on 2005 levels, he said.

The National Farmers Federation welcomed the plan and said it recognized farmers’ “hard work” in beating the 2030 target.

“It also recognises the tremendous opportunity that exists to use agricultural land as a carbon sink, by working with and incentivising our farmers to do even more,” NFF president, Fiona Simson said in a statement.

Australia’s Business Council also congratulated the government on its plan to “make sure that Australians are winners in this change.”

“Big investments in skills, new technologies like hydrogen and critical minerals will be crucial to positioning Australia to take advantage of new markets and opportunities in a low emissions world,” chief executive Jennifer Westacott said in a statement.

The Minerals Council, which represents the country’s miners said, it gave certainty “over the medium to long term for the Australian mining sector and its customers.”

Australia has one of the weakest commitments of all G20 nations, and its allies, including the US and UK, have been calling on the country to bring its pledge closer to 50%.

Morrison had come under increasing international pressure in recent months to take action on climate change, but speaking Tuesday he made it clear he would deliver the policies that he believed “Australians want.”

“Australians will set our own path to net zero by 2050 and we’ll set it here, by Australians for Australians,” he said.

Chris Bowen, the opposition Labor Party’s shadow minister for climate change, described the government’s announcement as a “scam” with no new policy detail.

“I’ve seen more detailed fortune cookies than the document released by the government today. Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the planet and the biggest opportunity facing Australia. It requires leadership,” he said.

Climate change is expected to be a major issue in the next federal election to be held early next year. It will be a two-way contest between Labor and the governing Coalition of the Liberals and Nationals.

Morrison had put off the net-zero pledge for months, even though all the country’s states and territories had already made the commitment. Business had already moved in that direction, heeding signs from the market that the world is moving to low emissions.

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