Australian PM indicates he may skip UN’s climate summit

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses travel restrictions during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, Oct 1, 2021. (LUKAS COCH / AAP IMAGE VIA AP)

Australia’s coal-supporting leader indicated he may skip another major climate summit, this time the crucial United Nations’ COP26 conference starting in Glasgow at the end of this month.

The nation “will be represented at a very senior level” at COP26, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who didn’t attend a climate-based conference while in the US last month, said Tuesday in an interview on Channel 9. Australia, one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters and per-capita emitters, faces pressure to become one of the last developed economies to commit to a net-zero emissions target.

Australian PM Scott Morrison said his first responsibility was to explain his climate policy to Australians, “not to people overseas”

Most nations are expected to outline their climate-reduction targets when officials from almost 200 countries gather for the fortnight of negotiations. US President Joe Biden will be among those attending and his climate envoy, John Kerry, has said it will be the last chance for the world to avoid a disaster triggered by greenhouse-gas emissions. 

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While every Australian state and territory has already committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, a national target is politically complicated for Morrison, who must hold elections by May and trails the main Labor opposition in opinion polls. His ruling conservative coalition, which holds a razor-thin majority in parliament, has crucial support from voters in coal-mining regions.

Rather than committing to a hard target to reach net-zero emissions, Morrison has so far said it was his government’s “ambition” to reach that level by 2050. On Tuesday the prime minister said his first responsibility was to explain his climate policy to Australians, “not to people overseas”. 

Morrison also said that if he does attend, he would face 14 days in quarantine on his return to Australia due to COVID-19 protocols. The prime minister, who has faced domestic criticism for traveling between states in lockdown, is one of a select group of Australians that have traveled abroad multiple times this year. He quarantined after trips to the UK and the US, where he skipped an in-person address at the UN summit amid meetings with Biden.

Fiscal moderates within Morrison’s ruling Liberal party, such as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, have been urging the prime minister to join more than 120 other nations to commit to a net-zero target, saying failure to do so would increase the cost of capital and reduce its availability. 

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They face resistance from taking further cliamte change action from the junior Nationals coalition partner, including Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who point to the economic importance of coal and natural gas, which account for about A$120 billion ($88 billion) a year of the nation’s export income. 

Climate issues are expected to be thrashed out within the government during the next meetings of the ruling coalition partyroom when parliament is due for its next sitting session from Oct 18. 

Morrison, who once branded a lump of coal in parliament in support of the fossil fuel, said on Tuesday that such difficult decisions “require a lot of debate internally.”