By Michael Taylor
Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pressure from Joe Biden's new green-leaning U.S. administration and Australian states could see Canberra set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050, climate experts said, urging stronger policies to phase out fossil fuels and push sustainable farming.
Australia's reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita. Green groups have long lobbied the federal government to wean itself off fossil fuels, especially after devastating bushfires last year.
Suzanne Harter, a climate campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the likelihood of a carbon-neutral aim being set ahead of the U.N. climate summit in November will increase as pressure builds for more ambitious climate action.
"There is a chance the prime minister will bow to domestic and international pressure and seek to avoid further embarrassment on the global stage by announcing a net-zero goal before November," Harter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Based on commitments Australia has already made under the Paris Agreement, the terrible impacts of global heating on Australia and the pressing need for policy certainty, the government should already have set this target," she added.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming, Australia pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2030 versus 2005 levels.
But according to analysis by research coalition Climate Action Tracker, Australia's current climate policies are "insufficient", and it has continued to signal its support for the coal industry.
Late last year, Australia said it would achieve its 2030 emissions target without counting old carbon credits - but that shift was not enough to secure it a speaking slot at a "climate ambition summit" held to mark the Paris deal's fifth anniversary.
Australia is seen as a regional laggard on climate by some green groups, who cite pledges for zero-emissions by mid-century made in recent months by China, Japan and South Korea.
Nikola Casule, head of research and investigations at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said Australian states and corporations were setting an example for leader Scott Morrison to adopt a national policy of net-zero emissions by 2050.
"All Australian states and territories have made the commitment, as well as more than 100 Australian businesses and organisations, and our biggest trading partners such as China - net-zero by 2060 - Japan and South Korea," he said.
PRICE TO PAY
Setting a target to cut planet-heating emissions to net zero by 2050 is an economic necessity in a rapidly decarbonising world, said Casule, irrespective of clear and pressing environmental imperatives to avoid dangerous global warming.
With the United States set to rejoin the 2015 Paris accord soon after Biden took power on Wednesday, his government would again use its global influence to accelerate the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, Casule said.
There may be a "price to pay for nations that fail to decarbonise their economies", he added.
Bill Hare, CEO at think tank Climate Analytics in Australia, agreed that the United States under Biden could be expected to ratchet up political and economic pressure on climate laggards.
"Australia will be firmly in the sights of the Biden administration," he said, adding Washington would likely work to build an alliance for action with the European Union, Britain, Japan and others.
Australia could help meet the most ambitious 1.5 degree-Celsius warming limit in the Paris Agreement by ditching its fondness for natural gas and transforming its transport sector, Hare said, noting the country had no emissions standards for cars.
Presently, Australia's energy consumption is dominated by fossil fuels, with coal providing about 40%, oil 34% and gas 22%, according to government data.
Switching the energy sector to 100% renewable sources over the next decade is feasible, Hare added, although few - if any - policies exist to cut emissions from the agriculture industry.
Non-energy farming emissions could be lowered through manure management, improved livestock feeding practices, more efficient fertiliser use and changing consumer diets, Hare said.
The federal government's language on climate has shifted in the last six to 12 months, noted Martijn Wilder, co-founder of climate advisory and investment firm Pollination in Sydney.
The government is already doing an enormous amount towards decarbonising the economy, he said, citing investment in technology and clean energy, a detailed strategy on hydrogen, promotion of renewables and a carbon-offsetting programme.
It also has to cope with a handful of influential members in its ruling coalition who oppose strong action on climate change, he said, adding that the government now accepts it cannot fund new coal-fired power capacity.
"While it is very easy to criticise the federal government as doing nothing, some of its policies are world-leading," Wilder said.
"It is managing internal politics but it's just a matter of time before some sort of (emissions) commitment is made." (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)