Australia is on track to have the most carbon-intensive economy of any major developed country in 2030 after the US, Japan and Canada promised to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions this decade.
An analysis by the Investor Group on Climate Change found Australia would have the highest emissions intensity – release the most heat-trapping gas for every $1 of GDP – among wealthy G20 nations if other countries delivered on new commitments to tackle the climate crisis.
Australia would also have the third highest per capita emissions in the G20, trailing only fossil fuel-reliant Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The analysis challenges Scott Morrison’s claim at a virtual climate summit hosted by the US president, Joe Biden, that Australia was taking significant action on climate change by reducing its emissions intensity by 70% and cutting its per capita emissions nearly in half by 2030.
Based on current commitments, it found this would still leave Australia behind the US, Britain, the European Union, Japan and Canada on both measures. All G7 members have promised much deeper cuts in emissions that Australia this decade, the period scientists warn will be crucial to limit the worst impacts of global heating.
Emma Herd, the investor group’s chief executive, said it showed Australia’s 2030 emissions commitment – a 26-28% cut below 2005 emissions levels – was weak when compared to others.
Herd said Biden’s pledge that the US would cut emissions by at least 50% this decade was “an enormous market signal” that the world’s largest economy and second biggest emitter was accelerating a shift to net zero emissions and intent on meeting its Paris agreement commitments.
While Morrison resisted calls to increase Australia’s climate goals when addressing the summit on early Friday morning, instead emphasising Australia’s record in “meeting and beating” what are widely seen as unambitious earlier targets, Japan and Canada both made pledges to cut emissions by at least 40% over that timeframe.
Herd said as well as a signal that governments planned to act, the targets were a signal to global capital markets of how serious a country was about “creating the enormous investment opportunities in new clean industries and infrastructure on offer”.
“There are trillions of dollars in private capital that investors are looking to commit to the transition to net zero emissions,” she said. “Nations who are not keeping pace … will be at an increasing competitive disadvantage.”
The analysis also challenges a claim by Morrison on Thursday that no other countries could claim the “same record of achievement that Australia consistently has” in meeting climate commitments.
It cited a previous assessment by Climate Analytics that found most countries had achieved their past emissions targets, and were on track to achieve their goals for 2025 or 2030 – but that most targets to that point were not enough to live up to the goals of the Paris agreement. Australia was in a group with South Korea, Mexico and the US who were not yet on track to meet the goals they set at the 2015 Paris climate conference.
Morrison told world leaders at Biden’s summit that future generations would thank them “not for what we have promised, but what we deliver”.
As other leaders highlighted the urgency of ambitious action in the next decade, the prime minister used his speech to push back against mounting international pressure to match climate pledges from comparable countries. He emphasised Australia’s “performance”, including rolling out solar and wind power faster than other countries, and said his government was “on the pathway to net zero” despite not having joined more than 100 countries to have formally adopted the target. He said the government would release a long-term emissions reduction strategy before Cop26.
Morrison’s turn to speak came while Biden, who had opened the summit, was not in the room. His appearance was preceded this week by announcements of $540m funding for “clean hydrogen” and carbon capture hubs and projects, $566m for international collaborations on low-emissions technology and $100m for ocean protection.
Speaking to reporters on Friday in his electorate in southern Sydney, Morrison said Australia was “very proud of what we are achieving” on climate change. He highlighted that national emissions had fallen by 19% since 2005, more than some other countries. Two-thirds of this fall occurred while Labor was in power before 2013, mostly due to a reduction in forest clearing in Queensland and a decline in native forestry.
Morrison stressed he would not introduce a carbon tax or carbon price, and used the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge that his country would cut emissions by 40%-45% by 2030 – which Morrison described as a “very big commitment” – to illustrate the point.
“They’ve also announced $170 per tonne carbon price,” he said. “I won’t be doing that in Australia. I will be getting there by technology, not taxes.”
The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the summit was a “missed opportunity” and other leaders “would have been scratching their heads” when Morrison said dealing with climate change was no longer about when action was taken but rather “about how”.
“Of course, in part it’s about when,” Albanese said. “Australia has to get its act together, and in the lead-up to the Glasgow conference later this year there’ll be real pressure on Australia to lift its game.”
Albanese repeated Labor’s policy since the 2019 election loss of not nominating a target for 2030 or 2035. He said the ALP would release policies “consistent” with reaching net zero emissions by 2050 before the next election.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said Morrison’s performance at the summit showed he was an “utter embarrassment and a threat to Australia’s safety”. The minor party backs a 75% emissions reduction target for 2030.
“The rest of the world is acting because we are in a climate emergency and facing societal collapse, but instead of protecting Australia, Scott Morrison and Labor want to burn more coal and gas and refuse to lift our 2030 target,” Bandt said.