Australia wants a ‘pause button’ for its global climate change commitments

Jason Scott October 11, 2021

(Bloomberg) --Australia should include “caveats” in any net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions pledge to allow it to suspend climate-change commitments should regional areas of the economy be negatively impacted, according to a senior government lawmaker.

The move by the Nationals, the rural-based junior partner in the ruling conservative coalition, highlights Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s challenges in committing to a meaningful 2050 net-zero target before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow starts Oct. 31. His Liberals are seeking a deal to avoid international and domestic criticism that could spill over into economic consequences, including higher costs of capital and trade reprisals.

“We want net-zero economic impact in the regions,” Regionalisation Minister Bridget McKenzie said in an op-ed in the Australian newspaper published Monday. “And we want that guaranteed.”

Australia, one of the world’s biggest fossil-fuel exporters and per-capita emitters, has no mechanism to make polluters pay for their emissions as segments of Morrison’s government seek to protect the coal industry. The prime minister has so far refused to commit to a net-zero target and said zero emissions by 2050 were an “ambition,” even as calls increase for him to strengthen policies to cut more greenhouse gases by the end of this decade.

Ahead of the next meeting of coalition lawmakers set for next week when parliament resumes in Canberra, McKenzie’s comments show some in the Nationals want to put the economy over climate concerns. She’s pushing for a legislated regional socio-economic impact assessment mechanism that would permanently monitor the impacts of emissions reduction strategies on rural areas and report every five years.

“One mechanism to help future-proof regional jobs in a Glasgow pledge is the insertion of caveats that protect the regions,” she said. “This would allow Australia to say to the world, we would make our contribution but if it negatively impacts on our ­regional communities, we have the right as a sovereign nation to hit the pause button.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s business community is ramping up calls for more climate action. A report released Saturday by the Business Council of Australia said a reduction in carbon pollution of up to 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels was achievable -- well above the 26-28% reduction Australia has committed to under the Paris Agreement.

On Monday, the Carbon Market Institute released a survey that showed 84% of its members -- including big emitters such as BHP Group and AGL Energy Ltd. -- backed the 50% reduction by 2030 target, and 88% want net zero by 2050.

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