Australia defies international pressure to set emissions targets

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he will not be dictated to by other government's climate change goals, declaring he is not worried about the future of Australia's exports as four of the country's top trading partners adopt net-zero emissions targets.

China, Japan, Britain and South Korea, which account for more than $310 billion in Australian annual trade between them, have all now adopted the emissions target by 2050 or 2060, ramping up pressure on Australia's fossil fuel industry. Coal, iron ore and natural gas are worth more than 40 per cent of Australia's exports, or $172 billion each year.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"I am not concerned about our future exports," Mr Morrison said on Wednesday. "Australia will set our policies here. Our policies won't be set in the United Kingdom, they won't be set in Brussels, they won't be set in any part of the world other than here."

As the Prime Minister spoke in Canberra, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in was addressing his own parliament in Seoul announcing his country would also pursue a net-zero target by 2050.

“Transitioning from coal to renewable energy, the government will create new markets, industries and jobs,” Mr Moon told the National Assembly on Wednesday.

Major Australian export companies like Rio Tinto, BHP, major agriculture groups and multinational food companies are pursuing carbon neutrality, which experts say is a move to avoid being stung with trade tariffs or charges by countries that have set net-zero targets.

The Morrison government has argued it will comply with the terms of the Paris climate agreement by reaching net zero by sometime in the second half of the century but has not set a firm target.

Mr Morrison said on Wednesday that Australia's emissions had fallen by 14 per cent since 2005, compared to 1 per cent for New Zealand and 0 per cent for Canada. Mr Morrison said the world would "not really make a lot of progress" without widespread renewable technology to ensure developing economies like India and Vietnam could also reduce emissions.

"Our record on this speaks for itself. When we make commitments in Australia's interests then we will meet those commitments as well," he said.

But top scientists contend that for Australia to honour the Paris agreement – which requires countries to follow the best available scientific advice on how to limit global warming to less than two degrees — the country must reach net zero emissions before 2050.

The federal government’s opposition to commit to reach the target by 2050 also put it out of step with all states and territories, which are pursuing carbon-neutral goals.

According to an analysis by the Investor Group on Climate Change, 60 per cent of Australia’s two-way trade is now conducted with nations with mid-century net-zero commitments. This is expected to jump to 70 per cent if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the United States election next week.

Tim Buckley of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said Australia and its major trading partners were now operating in a net zero by mid-century environment whether they liked it or not.

“If the government doesn’t acknowledge that it is just burying its head in the sand," he said.

South Korean policymaker Soyoung Lee, an MP with the ruling Democratic party, said: “Korea’s 2050 net-zero announcement will encourage other countries which are still deliberating over a 2050 target year, especially considering that Korea is still heavily reliant on the manufacturing industry and other high-carbon industries.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday encouraged Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a phone call to take "bold action" on climate change and "emphasise the importance of setting ambitious targets to cut emissions and reach net zero".

Responding to the UK government’s version of the phone call, Mr Morrison said Mr Johnson understood that Australia would make "sovereign decisions" on the targets it sets.

"It shouldn't come at the cost of higher prices for the daily things that our citizens depend on," he 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."

This week the world’s fifth largest emitter Japan pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, following China’s commitment to hit carbon neutrality by 2060.

The European Union, which has also set a net-zero emissions target by 2050, has proposed a carbon border tax that could see high-emissions exports hit with an import levy.

The EU's Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell on Friday said China's "announcement could be a tipping point in the global fight against climate change."

"The simple fact that China acknowledges the dramatic threat of climate change and that we need more action is of paramount importance," he said.

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