Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was not asked to speak at a global climate change summit. Photo: AFP/David Gray

SYDNEY – Normally, Boris Johnson is one of Scott Morrison’s favorite people, and warmth flows between their two governments.

The British prime minister lately says he wants a post-Brexit “Australian-style trade deal” with the European Union, whatever that is – Australia’s trade with Europe is so far just the standard World Trade Organization model.

He wants to sail his navy’s two new aircraft carriers around the Pacific, to help balance China. He is chuffed Australia has ordered A$30 billion (US$22.6 billion) worth of British-designed frigates.

As the Australian prime minister might say in a characteristic turn of phrase: What’s not to like about Boris Johnson?

But the past few days Morrison has been privately fuming at Johnson, according to reports citing unnamed officials in Canberra.

When Johnson, along with United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres and France’s Emmanuel Macron, held a virtual “Climate Action Summit” last weekend, Morrison had been dropped from his previously promised slot as one of some 70 speakers.

The reason was that Morrison’s government had not shaped up by announcing ambitious new targets to reduce carbon emissions. 

It emphasized that over this year Morrison has become what might be called a “stranded asset” on climate change – a term often used for power stations that suddenly become uneconomic due to changing technology and costs.

First China’s Xi Jinping announced a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. Then Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in said their countries would get to that position by 2050.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has raised Britain’s targets. Photo:

Britain also has the same goal, with Johnson recently raising its 2030 target from 58% to 67% of 2005-level emissions.

Johnson also announced that sales of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030, while Suga has said sales of gasoline-only vehicles would be phased out in the mid-2030s in favor of electric and hybrid models.

The firming of Joe Biden’s win in the United States has now left Morrison exposed, in company with outliers like Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro. One of Biden’s first appointments has been former secretary of state John Kerry as a new cabinet-level ambassador on climate policy.

So far, Morrison’s government is sticking with a target of reducing carbon emissions only by 26% to 28% of 2005 levels by 2030, a pledge made at the Paris climate summit in 2015. 

And until recently, Australia was planning to get there partly by using carbon “credits” accidentally acquired under the earlier Kyoto protocols, thanks to Australia’s farmers not clearing as much native forest as expected. 

Morrison had been hoping that a decision not to use such credits in meeting 2030 targets would be enough ambition for the latest climate meeting, along with a statement Australia would get to net-zero emissions “as soon as possible.”

He might have known he would not get away with it. When the summit organizers sent out letters of invitation to world leaders in October, they said “there will be no space for general statements.”

In a follow-up telephone call to Morrison on October 28, Johnson urged Australia to take “bold action” to cut emissions, according to a British press briefing. Morrison’s office claimed Johnson had been full of praise for Australia’s policies. 

The Australian prime minister has now been caught out on this spin. When asked in Parliament by independent MP Zali Steggal why he would not be speaking, Morrison replied that Australia’s climate and energy policy would be set in Australia’s national interest, “not to get a speaking slot at some international summit.”

A firefighter on the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometers north of Sydney, on December 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

Why this resistance? The fierce bushfires that ravaged Australia in the last southern summer showed how rising global temperatures were exacerbating this seasonal menace.

A recent poll for the Australia Institute, a think-tank, found 79% of Australians were concerned about climate change, with 57% agreeing they had already experienced “a lot” of impacts, and only 33% thinking Morrison’s government was doing “a good job” about climate change.

All of Australia’s six state governments and two self-government territories, whether held by Morrison’s conservative coalition or the Australian Labor Party, have adopted a zero-emission target by mid-century. Many are installing large-scale wind and photo-voltaic arrays, tied to giant batteries or pumped dam storage.

In the most populous state, New South Wales, its coalition government recently legislated to support 12 gigawatts of renewable generation, with two gigawatts of storage, involving A$32 billion ($24.1 billion) in private investment.

Such renewables are projected to supply more than 30% of Australia’s electricity next year and 55% by 2030. About one in five new car sales are already electric or hybrid, without any government incentive. A third of homes have rooftop solar panels.

Only within Morrison’s coalition, and to a lesser extent its Labor opposition, are politicians in deep dispute about moving to renewables. 

For a hard-right wing of the governing coalition, the promotion of coal, oil and gas has become emblematic of an authentic pioneering nationalism. Former prime minister Tony Abbott was its champion, famously declaring that “climate change is crap” and winning power in 2013 by portraying Labor’s previous introduction of a carbon market as a tax that would cripple the economy.

The coalition veered back to the center after Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott as prime minister, but he was unable to get his own carbon-reduction policy through his own party, and was ousted himself by Morrison in alliance with the hard-right in August 2018.

The year before Morrison had waved a lump of coal in parliament and taunted Labor:  “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”

Some of the coal operations at the Port of Newcastle in Australia. Photo: AFP/William West

The opposition Labor Party is scared about coal. As much as renewables and climate change action appeal to its urban electorates, where the Greens Party nip at its heels, Labor has lost support in the coal and gas-rich regions of New South Wales and Queensland, with the two states gaining seats in the federal parliament thanks to population shifts. 

While both sides of politics feel the pressure of hydrocarbon interests – through campaign donations, post-retirement directorships and in Labor’s case, by the weight of trade unions in its structure – a counter-power is growing. Banks and pension funds are stepping back from coal mines and insurance companies refusing to cover them.

Morrison and his hard-right supporters have been trying to bridge this divergence. He appointed a panel to advise on post-Covid economic recovery that was heavily weighted to business figures from the gas industry.

It has advised Australia needed a “gas-led” recovery, with more fracking of coal seams and an expanded pipeline network. This presented natural gas as a “transitional” fuel from coal to renewables.

In September, Morrison threatened the federal government would build a new gas-fired power station if New South Wales and private interests did not act to replace an existing coal-generator that will be retired in 2023, thundering that renewables could not provide reliable “base-load” power.

The same month the government listed five new technologies for development, including hydrogen power for vehicles. The list recycled an old favorite: carbon capture from smokestacks for sequestering in underground caverns and depleted oilfields – part of a dream of “clean coal” that in numerous pilot studies so far has proven technically difficult and highly expensive.

In his first post-election telephone chat with Biden on November 12, Morrison said he “raised with the President-elect the similarity between the President-elect’s comments and policies regarding emissions reduction technologies that we needed to achieve that.”

Then on November 23, when speaking to London’s Policy Exchange, a conservative forum, Morrison said he was partnering with Johnson “on our shared task to create a pathway to net-zero emissions driven by practical, scalable and commercially viable technologies, not economy destroying taxes.”

The dis-invitation to last weekend’s climate conference suggests this is not washing with Johnson, and unlikely to convince Kerry. Nor is it winning over Morrison’s own region.

When he trumpeted his back-away from using Kyoto carry-over credits to a teleconference with Pacific island leaders on December 11, they were not impressed.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has not been impressed by Australia’s stance on climate change. Photo: AFP/Mick Tsikas

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Morrison’s announcement was a step forward, but not enough. “Every nation must put forward more ambitious emissions reduction targets by 2030 as part of a net-zero commitment by 2050, and not one day later,” he said.

Bainimarama, along with counterparts from Kiribati and Nauru, were invited to speak the next day at the Climate Action Summit where Morrison was not.

So far, neither this diplomatic isolation nor the domestic effects of climate change – mega-bushfires, soaring temperatures, wilder storms, a dying Great Barrier Reef – have dented Morrison’s popularity at home.

He has an approval rate of about 66% in opinion polls and his coalition leads Labor by a narrower two points.

But Morrison is nothing if not a canny electoral calculator. Canberra analysts see Morrison’s move away from the Kyoto carry-over credits as a test of his hard-right MPs, to be followed by further shifts in climate policy if they remain quiet and a hardening of his target of getting to “net-zero as soon as possible.”

“From the moment Biden was projected as the likely winner, Morrison’s language began to change,” wrote Guardian Australia correspondents Katherine Murphy and Adam Morton. “The recent shift in the prime minister’s language invites two questions: is there a pivot underway, and is the shift real?”