Australia is under growing international pressure to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the policy is fiercely dividing its center-right government.
Australia is one of the world’s major exporters of coal and gas. Coal is mined in every state. Most exports go to countries in Asia, including China, Japan and South Korea.
In 2020, exports were worth about $39 billion. Trade has almost doubled in the past decade. But China’s informal import restrictions on Australian coal saw the value of exports fall sharply, although prices have started to recover. Coal also generates about 70% of Australia’s electricity. Coal-fired power makes it the most carbon polluting nation per capita in the world.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is planning to eventually shift his country’s reliance on coal and gas in favor of clean energy technologies, a shift from his time as a treasurer in 2017. In support of the mining industry, then-treasurer Morrison brought a piece of coal to Parliament to argue the need to continue producing coal in a famous scene.
“This is coal,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It’s coal that has delivered prosperity to Australian businesses and has ensured that Australian industry has been able to remain competitive on a global market.”
Clean energy is still an issue that deeply divides his center-right governing coalition.
Some members of the National Party — the junior alliance partner — are adamant that Australia’s coal industry is too valuable to lose and insist it will thrive for decades. Many regional communities depend on it. There is also disagreement about committing to a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The prime minister said he wants to achieve net zero emissions “as soon as possible” but has not outlined any measures to do so.
But government lawmaker Trent Zimmerman said Australia must join the global push to reduce emissions.
“We need both the target and the plan that matches it,” Zimmerman said. “It is very hard to divorce the two and obviously much of the international community has moved in that direction. In fact, eighty percent of global emissions or thereabouts are covered by pledges that relate to reaching net-zero. So, it is important for Australia that we are part of that because it is the right thing to do.”
Morrison has said he is yet to decide whether he will attend the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in November. He told a newspaper that he wanted to oversee Australia’s eventual emergence from COVID-19 lockdowns. His critics insist he is “too embarrassed” by his government’s climate change policies to attend the summit in the Scottish capital.
Opinion polls by the Australia Institute, an independent public policy think tank based in Canberra, have shown that most Australians want stronger measures to curb emissions. A United Nations climate change report recently warned that global warming will inflict more severe and frequent droughts, storms, heatwaves and bushfires in Australia.
However, those surveys reported by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper also revealed support for the coal industry. Less than half of Australians believe that coal power should be phased out within a decade. Australia’s addiction to fossil fuels might be hard to give up, according to the survey.