Australia already 'carrying its load' on emissions and must adapt to warmer climate, PM says

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected suggestions Australia could increase its international advocacy on climate change, saying the country is already “carrying its load” and must adapt to a warmer climate regardless of emissions policy.

After indicating that the government would “evolve” its climate change policies to address heightened concerns about the role of global warming in Australia’s ongoing bushfire crisis, Morrison used a keynote speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday to talk up the government’s current policies, including its emission reduction targets.

“We know that Australia on its own cannot control the world’s climate as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions,” Morrison said.

“We also know that no fire event can be attributed to the actions of any one country on emissions reduction. But Australia must play its part and we are playing our part. Taking action is agreed – our action, though, is a balanced and responsible emissions reduction plan.

“The science tells us the effects of emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to be felt in coming decades, even under the most ambitious global emissions reduction scenarios.”

When asked if the government could “step up and advocate” for more ambitious global action on climate change given its role as a “proud middle power”, Morrison said Australia was already doing enough.

“Australia is carrying its load and more. We are doing what you would expect a country like Australia to do, but what I won’t do is this: I am not going to sell out Australians – I am not going to sell out Australians based on the calls from some to put higher taxes on them or push up their electricity prices or to abandon their jobs and their industries,” he said.

The prime minister also said the government’s target of a cut of 26% to 28% of 2005 emission levels by 2030 was “set”, but he repeated claims that Australia was on track to “meet and beat” its target.

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Department of Environment data suggests national emissions will be 16% below 2005 levels by 2030, well short of the minimum 26% goal. The government is using carryover credits from the Kyoto protocol to make up the difference.

Seeking to recast the government’s policy approach as one of practical action “right now”, Morrison also argued that Australia should focus on resilience and adaptation to respond to the effects of climate change over the coming decades, given it could not be stopped.

His focus on “climate action now” included hazard reduction burning, building new dams, developing new drought-resistant crops, and a drought resilience plan.

“Mitigation and adaptation both contribute to resilience. Mitigation reduces the risk, adaptation is how we prepare for the climate risk we cannot reduce.

“When it comes to practical safety of people living in bushfire zones, hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction,” Morrison said.

“We need to seriously engage with issues like how we manage native vegetation, how we allow landowners to clear asset protection zones on their property … where we allow structures to be built and how, the material and standards they are built to, and where and when hazard reduction burns or other practices are carried out.

“All these considerations have a direct impact on the safety of Australians living in this climate and in this bush environment.”

Morrison said he had also asked the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to bring forward recommendations for “further practical resilience measures”, including on buildings, public infrastructure, industries such as agriculture and protecting natural assets, which would be discussed at the March Council of Australia Governments (Coag) meeting.

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The prime minister also flagged that he would soon have further detail to announce on a new bilateral agreement with New South Wales on energy and emissions reductions, with other states and territories to follow.

“These agreements will focus on keeping energy prices affordable, improving the reliability of the electricity grid and driving down emissions while we do so, and I commend Angus Taylor for the great work he’s been doing in this area.”

It was not clear whether emissions reduction would be a requirement, as had been the case for the dumped national energy guarantee, but Morrison indicated that improved access to domestic gas supplies would be a key element of the new agreements.

“We need to get the gas from under our feet. There is no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel,” Morrison said.