The election of Joe Biden further isolates the Morrison government as a climate denialist holdout in a world where the economies most important to Australia have all embraced serious emissions abatement targets.
A Biden administration will return to the Paris Agreement and will seek to establish targets for emissions reductions and even a carbon neutrality goal, though it faces a likely hostile Senate controlled by Republican recipients of fossil fuel and right-wing donations. Biden is likely to continue Barack Obama’s strategy of using executive action to drive climate action.
If the US decides on a carbon neutrality commitment under Biden, that will mean Australia’s top four trading partners all have carbon neutrality goals. Another major trading partner, the European Union, is considering a carbon tariff on emissions-intensive imports from countries that do not have a carbon pricing regime consistent with its own.
Australia, which has no meaningful climate action plan under the Morrison government, would be a prime target for any carbon tariff.
Crucially, the carbon tariff idea has the support of EU businesses, who see it as a way to reduce unfair competition from countries that are free riding on global efforts to reduce emissions.
A world in which the US has returned to the Paris Agreement and embraced a significant emissions reduction target is far more conducive to carbon tariffs against free riders like Australia. A Biden administration would set climate action as the new policy normal — a reversal from the Trump years when Australia could hide behind the denialism of the Republicans.
With our four biggest trading partners having embraced emissions targets, the denialist argument that Australia must wait until the rest of the world takes action will no longer be valid. Instead, Australia will be an outsider from what is normal.
Malcolm Turnbull accurately summed up the challenge for the government yesterday, dismissing Morrison’s plan for a gas-led recovery as “political piffle” and urging him to pivot to a zero-emissions goal, otherwise “he is going to look out on the extreme with Saudi Arabia, for heaven’s sake”.
Turnbull thinks the removal of Trump — “Murdoch’s man in the White House” — is the moment for Morrison to strike on climate with less fear of a backlash from the denialist rump of Coalition and Murdoch’s denialists across the media.
So far, the only response from Morrison has been to couch the issue in terms of sovereignty, saying the “United States will make their decisions based on their interests and their capabilities and how their economy is structured and we’ll do the same”.
Trouble is, the United States can afford to act in isolation from the global economy, as if climate change doesn’t exist. Despite the delusions of the National Party and fossil fuel fans in the Liberal Party, Australia has no such luxury. Soon, their denialism will not merely mark us as an international outlier, but may have serious ramifications for our exports.