Peter Dutton’s latest salvo on Australia’s emission goals suggests our climate wars are far from over

Opposition leader Peter Dutton on Tuesday reiterated the Coalition’s support for the Paris climate agreement, following suggestions he might walk away from the deal. But he fuelled speculation the Coalition plans to scrap Australia’s current 2030 emissions target and confirmed he won’t annouce the Coalition’s proposed target before the election.

Author


  • Matt McDonald

    Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

Dutton’s comments follow days of confusion about where the Coalition stands on Australia’s emissions reduction goals. Nationals MPs Barnaby Joyce and Keith Pitt reportedly want the Coalition to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And over the weekend, Dutton said the Albanese government “just have no hope of achieving the [2030] targets and there’s no sense signing up to targets you don’t have any prospect of achieving”.

Speaking on Tuesday, Dutton said of the Coalition’s climate policy:

we’re not going to send the economy into freefall, and families bankrupt, through an ideologically based approach, which is what Anthony Albanese is doing at the moment.

So what would happen if a Dutton government weakened Australia’s 2030 targets – a 43% cut on 2005 levels – or if the Coalition’s more conservative elements succeeded and the Coalition abandoned Australia’s Paris commitment altogether?

At this stage, it’s virtually impossible to imagine Australia walking away from the Paris deal. But even watering down our 2030 targets would have significant diplomatic and economic repercussions. Either way, climate policy is looming as a major issue heading into the next election.

The 2030 targets must stay

Let’s say a Coalition government decided to drop Australia’s 2030 targets, but remain signed up to the Paris agreement, and the broader goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

This would technically be possible. However, it is clearly inconsistent with the spirit of the Paris agreement, which asks that nations ratchet-up their emissions reduction commitments over time.

And abandoning the 2030 goal would make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for Australia to reach net-zero by 2050. As others have noted, the 43% target target already falls short of what is needed for Australia to do its share on emissions reduction under the Paris Agreement, and is less ambitious than the targets adopted by our international peers.

This brings us to Coalition suggestions that Australia has no prospect of meeting the 43% target, and so should not be signed up to it. This is a ridiculous argument.

First, the 43% target is not unachievable. The latest forecasts suggest Australia is on track to cutting emissions by 42% by 2030.

Emissions targets signal that a government is working towards something. They encourage aspiration and action. They incentivise investment in some areas – such as renewable energy – and disincentivise investment elsewhere, such as in fossil fuels. A target’s legitimacy isn’t determined by whether it is wholly met.

Having said that, the Coalition’s line of attack should be a wake-up call to the Albanese government to make sure the 43% target is achieved.

What about nuclear?

The Coalition’s climate and energy policy hinges, controversially, on the introduction of a nuclear power industry in Australia.

Nationals leader David Littleproud on Monday said the Coalition remains committed to the goal of net-zero by 2050, but most emissions reduction would occur towards the end of that period when nuclear power is up and running. He said the Coalition would have interim targets out to 2050 “but we won’t have a linear pathway” to net-zero.

The idea that nuclear could be part of the solution to Australia’s energy transition is nonsense. Evidence abounds to support this, including a report by the CSIRO last month which found a nuclear plant would cost at least A$8.6 billion, and electricity from nuclear power in Australia would be at least 50% more expensive than solar and wind.

Establishing a nuclear energy capacity in Australia would be prohibitively expensive and just not feasible. What’s more, the long-term economic costs would be huge. Not least are the eye-watering costs of dealing with the effects of climate change should the world, including Australia, not reduce emissions dramatically.

Australia on the global stage

Increasingly around the world, nations that fail to act on climate change risk being penalised economically in the form of carbon tariffs. There are taxes applied to imports, according to the volume of greenhouse gas emissions released in their production.

The policy is designed to ensure manufacturers operating in nations with strict emissions policies in place, such as a carbon price, are not undercut by manufacturers in higher-emitting countries. The European Union introduced such a policy in 2023. The US is also considering a version of the policy.

Australian exporters risk significant economic costs if our federal government does not adopt a serious emissions reduction strategy.

Then there is the question of Australia’s international reputation. Stepping back on climate change goals does not align with the image we have of ourselves: as a good international citizen that helps advance responses to challenging transnational problems.

More directly, it would badly undermine Australia’s relationships with its Pacific neighbours, for whom climate change is an existential threat – perhaps even pushing those countries closer to China.

The results of the next presidential election in the United States, however, pose a danger. There, conservatives have reportedly drafted a plan for a future Trump administration to leave the Paris agreement, as it did in 2020.

If a major global power, and Australia’s biggest ally, withdraws from the deal, it may provide cover for a future Australian government to do the same.

The climate wars continue

From a domestic political point of view, it’s unclear what the Coalition hopes to achieve by raising the prospect of a walk-back on climate action. Such a policy would, for example, make it acutely difficult for the Coalition to win back teal seats it lost at the last election.

A recent Lowy poll found 57% of Australians think global warming “is a serious and pressing problem and that we should begin taking steps now, even if it involves significant costs”.

Following the last election, hopes were high that Australia’s frustrating climate wars may be over. The results suggested the Coalition’s only pathway back to power would have to involve a legitimate climate policy. The Coalition’s latest rhetoric suggests it does not agree.

The Conversation

Matt McDonald has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.