By Kalinga Seneviratne
The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been closely aligned with that of the US President Donald Trump on climate change and policy towards China. But, media commentators here in the past few days have been arguing that a Biden administration may put pressure on Australia to change its climate change policies in particular and tread a more cautious approach to diplomacy with China.
Australia is one of the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse emitters as well as a major exporter of coal. The Morrison government has set a 2030 emission target of 26-28 per cent reduction from 2005 levels, after having rejected a scientific report by the Climate Change Authority recommending reducing the emission levels by 45-60 per cent over the same period.
Before the advent of the COVID-19 crisis, national emissions have been reduced by just 2.2 per cent since the Liberal-National coalition government came to power in 2013.
Australia has faced significant pressure at the UN climate conference in Madrid in 2019 to lift its climate commitments. Australia is currently on the same boat with countries like Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia that have been resisting such pressure.
President-elect Joe Biden on November 4 promised to re-join the Paris agreement and he has declared addressing climate change “the No 1 issue facing humanity” and promised $2 trillion in climate spending and policies to put the US on a path to 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
“Australia risks becoming an isolated laggard in addressing the climate crisis, without obvious allies to shelter it from rising international pressure to act, as the US takes a leadership role under Joe Biden” noted Guardian Australia’s environmental editor Adam Morton.
This week Morrison has joined several national leaders in calling Biden to congratulate him on the election win. The Prime Minister told reporters in Canberra that climate change was not discussed during the short call. “The president-elect was very much interested in Australia’s success here and what Australia could contribute from our lessons and our learnings about the way that we have managed the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Biden’s team in Washington has put out a brief description of the call which said the two leaders discussed “many common challenges, including containing the COVID-19 pandemic and guarding against future global health threats; confronting climate change; laying the groundwork for the global economic recovery; strengthening democracy, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”.
Morrison has allied closely with Trump in blaming China for the spread of the Coronavirus and his call for an independent inquiry about its origins and alleged mishandling by China in the early stages of the pandemic has riled Australia’s biggest trading partner. Since then China has slapped punitive tariffs on Australian exports such as on barley, beef and wines, and has also restricted purchases of Australian coal.
Earlier in November, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported the Chinese government was set to ban Australian imports of timber, sugar, copper ore and copper concentrates, wool, lobsters, barley and wine. These markets are worth about AUD 6 billion a year.
Pointing out that between January-October, Australia’s year-to-year exports to China have been reduced by 4.3 per cent, China’s ‘Global Times’ in an editorial warned that “if Canberra doesn’t completely change its attitude toward China in terms of diplomatic and economic policy”, the China-Australia relationship decline will continue. “The development of bilateral economic ties is to some extent linked to the foundation of the political relationship between the two countries” it pointed out, adding, that the Morrison government “even apart from what it has done politically, the country is also very unfriendly to China economically”.
Analysts here do not expect the Biden administration policy towards Beijing to be a radical departure from that of the Trump administration.
Professor Gordon Flake at the USAsia Centre of the University of Western Australia argues that Trump administration’s isolationist ‘America First’ policy articulated with a megaphone from the White House have had a “negative impact” on Australia’s own policy towards China and he hopes that will fade away with a Biden administration.
This isolationist policy, Prof Flake notes, has contributed to the US withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Change agreement, and has worked against Australia’s multilateral outlook. “So, a Biden victory,” he says, “means that the scope of cooperation—the scope of shared strategies, priorities and policies for Australia and the United States—expands exponentially.”
Yet, it is in the climate change arena that the Morrison government could face friction with the new Biden regime. Mike Foley, ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (SMH) environment and climate change analyst warns a major climate policy decision looms for the Morrison government following the election of Biden with a pro-climate agenda. Australia may have to “abandon the use of controversial Kyoto ‘carry over credits’ or risk damage to Australia’s reputation”, he warns.
Foley points out, Biden’s presidency means Australia’s five largest export markets, covering 70 per cent of trade, will have net zero targets for 2050 or 2060 including the US, China, Japan, South Korea and the UK. Thus, Australia would face international pressure to abandon carryover credits. Biden regime could exert subtle pressure on Australia rather than confrontation.
With no US administration to support Australia’s cause, Conservative lobby group Coalition for Conservation executive director Leo Shanahan told SMH that the global trend will drift away from Australia’s position on climate change.
“The Morrison government should commit to net-zero by 2050 and a clean energy mix that makes it possible before the (Glasgow talks). This would not only avoid being left out in the cold diplomatically but negate the very real threat of carbon tariffs,” argues Shanahan.
“Australia remains an embedded part of the Washington firm even when the firm is little more than a careening bus – the Trump period has reinforced that truism – and we sit squarely in the hot zone of 21st-century geopolitical tensions. Biden will be focused on recalibrating America’s relationship with China, and Australia is a part of that picture,” notes Katharine Murphy, Guardian Australia’s political editor.
“If Biden’s alliance-building instinct comes to fruition, Australia has some useful currency to put on the table. We possess some substantive insights for the new administration in how to engage constructively within the Indo-Pacific,” she added.