Scott Morrison feels the pain of rejection

The government’s addiction to fossil fuels is making us an international pariah

Like most national leaders, Scott Morrison enjoys a world stage. He really did want to be part of last weekend’s UN climate summit hosted by his British counterpart, Boris Johnson. But he couldn’t commit to tougher climate measures, so that was that.

In parliament this month he chose to say nothing about that. But his answers to two questions about the summit revealed quite a lot about how his government was responding to the rejection.

A fortnight ago he was already gathering thoughts for a speech to the world. “Indeed we will be participating,” he told Greens leader Adam Bandt in parliament. “It will be a great opportunity to correct the mistruths that have just been spoken by the Leader of the Greens.”

A week later he couldn’t bring himself to say he had been knocked back for the summit when pressed by NSW independent Zali Steggall. Instead he offered this bit of homespun bravado: “I can assure you of this: that Australia’s climate and energy policy will be set here in Australia in Australia’s national interest, not to get a speaking slot at some international summit.”

He went on: “The member thinks what’s relevant is whether you speak at summits or not… That’s not something that troubles me… If people wish us to speak at them, we’re happy to come. If they don’t, I’m not fussed.”

So much for the “great opportunity to correct the mistruths”.

The PM’s international snub came just a couple of weeks after federal environment minister Sussan Ley approved a massive $3.6 billion gas project in The Pilliga, near Narrabri, NSW. Reaction to the approval focused on how gas drilling could affect underground water resources, but its potential impact on global greenhouse gas concentrations would not have gone unnoticed abroad.

A decade ago emissions from natural gas extraction and use were thought to be far less damaging to the climate than coal, but more detailed study since has greatly narrowed that gap. In August this year, 25 leading Australian scientists told the government that natural gas – essentially the powerful warming agent methane – was now “the most important greenhouse gas driving climate change.”

The PM and energy minister Angus Taylor have all but staked their future careers on the scheme’s success. They have promoted a “gas-led recovery” as some sort of solution to the debilitating, endless debate across both major parties over the future of coal.

But the Pilliga scheme has a long way to go. The proponent, Santos, will not commit investment funds for at least a year, suggesting nervousness about pumping billions into 850 new gas wells and complex infrastructure in the face of growing international pressure to get out of fossil fuels.

Therein lies the dilemma faced by Scott Morrison and his Coalition colleagues. When expectations change in an economy, so must the plans of those who want to keep doing business. Santos knows that. The signals are coming thick and fast, and every global and domestic company with an eye to long-term trends can see the writing on the wall.

So can governments. In the US, Trumpian isolationism is now in angry retreat after a clear election win by moderate Joe Biden. In Europe, a few noisy demagogues have failed to stop last week’s EU agreement on a 55 per cent emissions cut by 2030. Meanwhile Britain’s Conservatives under Johnson have gone for a hugely ambitious 68 per cent cut by 2030.

Against all this, Australia’s 2030 reduction target of 26 to 28 per cent looks pathetic. No-one can be surprised that Nigel Topping, Johnson’s top-level “Climate Action Champion” for next year’s UN climate meeting in Glasgow, said that in international climate policy circles Australia “is on track to the wooden spoon”.

The government’s defiance of external pressure is driven by its last-century mindset that Australia can continue to extract, use and export our large reserves of gas and coal more or less forever. It seems that nothing – not even last summer’s disastrous climate-driven fires – will shake that mindset.

It was good to see health minister Greg Hunt put his weight behind Australia’s successful science-based pandemic policy. But as environment minister in 2013 he turned his back on science when he spruiked “direct action”, the Abbott government’s politically-driven, science-free emissions policy.

The world has moved on since then, but the Coalition has not. Last week’s rejection ought to prompt Scott Morrison and everyone in his government to put down the nationalist drum and think hard and long and deeply about why it happened, but the signs aren’t good.

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