Malcolm Turnbull says Scott Morrison was “dazzled and duchessed” and went “full-in” with Donald Trump on foreign affairs and climate change, but now needs to change direction to avoid Australia being seen as a “Trump-lite refuge in the southern hemisphere”.
In his latest commentary on the government he once led, Turnbull told a conference on Tuesday he was confident Morrison would set a target of Australia having net zero emissions in 2050, despite the government’s continued resistance.
The former prime minister said it was a time for “high-ambition” in response to the climate crisis following Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election and China, Japan and Korea joining Britain and Europe in setting net zero targets. That meant setting a more ambitious 2030 emissions target than Australia’s current goal of a 26-28% cut compared to 2005 levels.
Turnbull said a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 “if not earlier” was vital for Australia’s energy policy, climate future and international credibility.
“I am confident Morrison will move to that,” he told the Australian Financial Review energy and climate summit.
“He probably over-channeled Trump. He was clearly dazzled and duchessed by Trump and went full-in with that in a number of areas … but the reality now is all of our major trading partners have got a net zero target [and] the Biden administration will return to the climate fray with real enthusiasm.”
He said Biden’s intentions had been underlined overnight with his appointment of John Kerry – a former secretary of state who Turnbull described as “a real climate action evangelist with huge global credibility” – as special climate envoy.
“Australia really has to get on board,” he said. “If we don’t we will pay a heavy price for this, believe me, in international trade.
“We are kidding ourselves to think the Europeans will not have climate as one element in the Australia-Europe free trade agreement, absolutely kidding ourselves, and I can see the Americans making that condition of trade agreements right around the world.
“Basically, what Scott’s got to do now is pivot, or dismount – whatever you want to call it. Whether it’s done elegantly or not doesn’t really matter, as long as he does it.”
Turnbull said it was “very clear” Australia could do more by 2030 than the current target, which was set under Tony Abbott, and which Turnbull kept while prime minister between 2015 and 2018.
“We can do that consistent with having cheaper and reliable energy as long as you plan it right,” he said. “We should commit to as much as we can or, realistically, probably commit to 80-90% of what we feel we can do to leave a bit of room in case things slip.”
The Climate Change Authority recommended in 2015 that Australia would need to cut its emissions by between 45% and 60% by 2030 to play its part in meaningful global action.
Turnbull said leaders in Europe would be querying Australia’s stance on climate change as the government paid for the former foreign minister, Matthias Cormann, to campaign against the continent to lead the OECD.
“It’s not a good look,” he said. “If we want to be taken seriously in the global community as…a voice of conviction then we have got to be able to step up at least to the targets and commitments that all of our trading partners have done.
“The Trump era is over, at least for four years, and we don’t want to be looking like a sort of a Trump-lite refuge in the southern hemisphere.”
Morrison is under increased pressure over the net zero target internationally and at home. He told a virtual G20 summit on Sunday that Australia was committed to “practical pathways to reduce our emissions”, and referred to its support for five low-emissions technology in a recent “roadmap”.
Turnbull was asked to respond to Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, who told the summit on Monday that many countries did not have a detailed plan of how to get to net zero and Australia did not do gesture politics.
He said Taylor was “a highly numerate guy but sadly just about everything he says about energy is political”.
“It’s aimed at securing and maintaining his base of support on the rightwing of the Liberal party and with their backers and amplifiers in the rightwing media, principally owned by Rupert Murdoch” he said.
Referring to the government’s commitment to a “gas-led recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic, Turnbull said it was remarkable that Taylor dismissed evidence from the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo), the Grattan Institute and other experts that new gas was expected to be more expensive than alternatives.
He said Taylor had not disclosed federal government modelling of what a gas-led recovery would mean, but demanded “everyone else” release modelling – a reference to a speech the minister gave to the conference on Monday. In his speech, Taylor called on the New South Wales energy minister, Matt Kean, to release modelling of the state’s plan to underwrite 12 gigawatts of renewable energy over the next decade, noting there had been no public consultation before the announcement.
“We’ve got to get real here,” Turnbull said. “We know that we need urgently to cut our emissions and we also know that the cheapest form of generation is from variable renewables – wind and solar – and it’s getting cheaper. The cost of storage in terms of batteries is getting cheaper and the opportunities of longer-term storage with pumped hydro are numerous.”
Turnbull was challenged over his vocal opposition when prime minister to the energy company AGL’s plan to shut the Liddell coal plant. At the time, Labor accused him of bullying the boss of the company into agreeing to consider extending the life of the plant five years.
On Tuesday, Turnbull said Aemo’s advice then was there would be a shortfall in “firm” electricity generation, but that issue had now largely been addressed and the sooner the Liddell and Bayswater coal plants closed “the happier I’ll be, in terms of emissions”.
“I want to see all coal-fired power stations closed, but closed in a manner that ensures that we have reliable and cheaper electricity, so you just have to plan it,” he said.
On gas, Turnbull said he was “very sceptical” about claims there would be cheap gas and “very worried that vested interests in the energy sector” would persuade the government to subsidise gas infrastructure that would become stranded assets. He said governments could often be “clueless” when dealing with the private sector.
“I think the community has got to be very alert and be asking questions about who’s talking to whom and who’s lobbying whom and so forth,” he said. “There needs to be great transparency.”