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Congress constraints mean the US and Australia aren’t so far apart on climate after all

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP</span>
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

“The Australian Way” was the title of the Morrison government’s rollout of its “whole-of-economy Plan” for net zero emissions by 2050, the phrase used at least eight times in Tuesday’s press conference.

Repeatedly reminding us of the “Australian” character of the plan serves multiple purposes for a government preparing for re-election. It can’t help but signal defiance, designed to head off international criticism of Australia’s climate aspirations before the Glasgow summit. As Scott Morrison elaborated: “We won’t be lectured by others who do not understand Australia. The Australian way is all about how you do it, and not if you do it. It’s about getting it done.”

The contrast with the optics and framing of other “big” Australian policy announcements is striking, with their focus on collaboration, alliances and partnerships and defending the “rules-based, international order”: witness the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, Aukus, the Quad. An “Australian way” is certainly striking a different tone. Echoes of Howard-era border policy or even elements of “America First” are present. Perhaps Morrison’s concerns about “negative globalism” are back, in time for the election?

Related: The Coalition’s net zero policy is merely a plan to freeload off the rest of the world | Tristan Edis

These observations aside, Tuesday’s announcement is significant; given recent Australian political history it is noteworthy that a centre-right Australian government has explicitly committed itself to a 2050 net zero target.

Yet for all the government’s branding of its plan as “Australian”, there is a strong case that the Biden administration’s focus on climate change is the sine qua non for Australia’s policy evolution.

Imagine that Donald Trump had won re-election in 2020 and was still president of the US, which remained withdrawn from the Paris climate accords and almost surely sitting out the Glasgow climate conference.

In this scenario, would we have seen the Morrison government spend 2021 crabwalking towards a net zero 2050 target and making its announcement this week? Absent the spotlight that the Biden administration has put on climate change, what position would Australia be taking to Glasgow this weekend?

This is not to say that the Australian government has acted so as to head off criticism from the US; rather, the change in the US position would have seen a recalcitrant Australia increasingly isolated internationally, and the strong public signals from the Biden administration have almost surely nudged Australian public opinion and business leaders further towards acceptance of net zero.

Nonetheless, the “Australian way” is unlikely to satisfy US critics. The absence of an explicit 2030 target and the lack of detail about how Australia intends to get to net zero have been rounded on in US media. Australia goes to Glasgow with data on emissions per capita pegging us at about 140% of US levels and at 150% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP.

Rarely does a change of US administration produce such policy discontinuity on an issue of such significance to Australia

Over the last year coal generated 63% of power in Australia’s national electricity market but just 19% in the US, with gas supplying 40% and nuclear power 20%. Gas is now the single largest source of electricity in the US, producing about 50% the CO2 emissions of coal per unit of electricity generated, and a big part of the reason why its economy has become less carbon intensive. Easing US dependence on gas will be no trivial thing. But the country is much further down the decarbonisation runway.

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign made it obvious that climate and energy were likely to become a source of tension in what is an otherwise extremely close relationship. Upon his swearing in, the Morrison government saw Australia’s most important international partner vault from being on its right to its left on the most significant and challenging global issue of our time.

For many Democrats, global leadership on combating climate change exemplifies a restoration of the US as a force for good and hence is a source of national pride and purpose, repudiating Trump’s “America First” hostility towards multilateralism and Maga-nation’s rejection of science substantiating anthropogenic climate change.

On his first day in office, Biden recommitted the US to the Paris climate agreement and set a goal of a 50% to 52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with a special emphasis on decarbonising electricity generation. His appointment of Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry as special envoy on climate further heightened anticipation that climate and energy would become delicate matters in the Australia-US bilateral relationship. Rarely does a change of administration in the US produce such policy discontinuity on an issue of such significance to Australian interests.

Almost on cue, Kerry and US officials called out Australia’s climate efforts as “not sufficient” and reminded the world of its heel-dragging at previous summits. Last week the US chargé d’affaires in Australia, Mike Goldman, remarked that a 2050 net zero target was “necessary” but “perhaps not sufficient”.

Related: Malcolm Turnbull on Murdoch, lies and the climate crisis: ‘The same forces that enabled Trump are at work in Australia’

While Biden administration officials have clearly prodded Australia on climate and energy policy, one should not underestimate the political constraints Democrats face in Congress. Biden’s exhortations for the world’s major economies to do more may not match what his party is able to legislate.

With a US Senate evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the Democratic senator Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia has emerged as the veto player; climate policy requiring federal legislation will be whatever he wants it to be. Already, ambitious initiatives have been stripped from the infrastructure package mired in negotiations between the Biden administration, Manchin and Democratic Congressional leaders. Biden is going to Glasgow with some pro-climate executive orders and regulation to trumpet but little else.

This means that the set of feasible policies in the US and Australia is remarkably similar, at least for now. Encouraging businesses and universities to develop green technologies and being an early-stage customer is about as far as either government can go politically, should they wish. The political institutions in Canberra and Washington are different but, at root, the difficult business of forming majority coalitions in district-based legislatures is the cause in common: a small number of Coalition MPs are to Australian politics what Manchin is to US politics.

Prof Simon Jackman is chief executive of the United States Studies Centre

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