Scott Morrison has reiterated his intention to reach net zero emissions “as soon as possible and preferably by 2050”, and transition Australia to a “new energy economy”, in a conversation with Joe Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry.

An Australian readout circulated by the prime minister’s office after the conversation on Wednesday stated Morrison flagged his mid-century intention in the context of “the work that needed to be done together to achieve such a goal while protecting jobs and livelihoods, especially in regional areas, that rely on energy-intensive industries”.

Biden has promised to place climate action at the centre of diplomatic and security engagements. The US president sent a signal on the importance he placed on the issue by inviting Kerry to be part of his delegation for the first leader-level talks of the Quad countries – which also include Australia, Japan and India – on Saturday.

Ahead of a climate ambition summit to be hosted by the Biden administration in April, Kerry last month publicly acknowledged past “differences” between the US and Australia in tackling the climate crisis. Kerry called for a faster exit from coal-fired power around the globe.

The “new energy economy” formulation in the Australian readout is new language to frame the transition. This week, the Australian ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, implied the Morrison government was considering updating its emission reduction targets in the lead-up to November’s Glasgow climate conference, known as Cop26.

Sinodinos said the Biden administration was “very open” to Australia’s push to focus on investing in low-emissions technology “but their view is that goes hand-in-hand with how we think about climate ambition”.

“Our view is targets are something which are important in their own regard, and Australia is doing further work on what that means in the future as we go to Cop26,” Sinodinos told a United States Studies Centre event in Canberra on Tuesday.

Sinodinos said it was “better to underpromise and overdeliver” on setting emission reduction targets. Australia wanted to work with the US on technologies “which really move the dial when it comes to emissions reduction”.

“They’re very open to that, but that does mean big investments on their part and our part,” he said.

Last week, the US and the UK issued a joint statement urging all countries “to take the steps needed to keep a 1.5C temperature limit within reach, including through ambitious nationally determined contributions and long-term strategies to cut emissions and reach net zero”.

The Australian readout says Wednesday’s conversation between Morrison and Kerry was “constructive” and the call countenanced ways the two countries could work together on technological advances “that can enable us to address climate challenge and the transition to a new energy economy”.

It noted that Quad leaders had recognised addressing climate change “as one of a series of issues, including Covid-19, where liberal democracies can provide leadership and deliver practical solutions”.

Kerry and Morrison had agreed there was “increasing momentum in business and finance in driving economic opportunities from the transition to the new energy economy” and Australia was “keen” to be part of those opportunities. The two canvassed collaboration on research and innovation on clean technologies.

The readout states Australia’s “strong record of meeting and beating our emissions reduction targets was recognised”. Morrison had “added” during the conversation “that the climate discussion must importantly focus on what nations are achieving in emissions reductions to date, not just future ambition”.

Official projections released in December suggest the Morrison government is not currently on track to meet its 2030 emission reduction target of a 26-28% cut on 2005 levels. The latest update says Australia is likely to hit a 22% reduction at the end of the decade.

Morrison opened the new parliamentary year with a scene-setting address at the National Press Club where he declared he wanted Australia to get to net zero emissions “as soon as possible” and “preferably by 2050” – an aspiration that was immediately countered by Nationals MPs.

The day after Morrison’s signal, Nationals in the Senate issued a joint statement declaring Australia needed to build “modern coal-fired power stations” to generate affordable, reliable energy.

The pushback continued last month when the former Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, took the Liberals by surprise by proposing an amendment to government legislation on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) intended to allow for new investment in “high efficiency, low-emissions” coal-fired power.

The government promptly pulled the CEFC bill and it has not reappeared on the parliamentary program.



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