Australia shies from backing net zero by 2050 ahead of Biden climate summit

  • Coal, gas dependence poses challenge to ambitious targets
  • Australia forecast to just beat 2030 emissions target
  • Conservatives count on technology push

CANBERRA, April 20 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short of endorsing a 2050 target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's climate summit this week.

In a speech on Monday, he said only that Australia, the highest per capita carbon emitter among the world's richest nations, will achieve net zero "as quickly as possible and preferably by 2050".

"We don't make commitments lightly in this country. We prepare our plan to achieve them and then we follow through," Morrison said at a major business event in Sydney.

Analysts took those comments as a sign Australia would not commit to ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets at the virtual summit on April 22-23, defying pressure from the United States.

"This is a federal government that will do the absolute minimum required to just keep its seat at the table, but do nothing beyond that," said Richie Merzian, climate and energy director at The Australia Institute think tank.

Modest emissions targets worked for Australia while Donald Trump was in the White House, but the country now faces heavy pressure from the Biden administration to phase out fossil fuels.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday his diplomats would challenge countries whose inaction thwarted efforts to fight climate change. read more

Morrison is hard-pressed to do anything that would undermine Australia's position as the world's biggest exporter of coal and second largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) even as most of the country's allies and the biggest buyers of its coal and gas - China, Japan and South Korea - have committed to net zero by mid-century.

He has resisted calls from Australia's biggest companies, including its top gas producers, to set a carbon price or a net zero by 2050 target, both seen as essential to help create investment certainty during the energy transition.

"The key to meeting our climate change ambitions is commercialisation of low emissions technology. We are not going to meet our climate change targets through punishing taxes. I am not going to tax our industries off the planet," Morrison said.

He must walk a fine line as climate change skeptics were a key force in deposing his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, as prime minister in 2018.

"He has to be mindful that he is the prime minister of a coalition that includes elements who are fearful of aggressive climate action," said Haydon Manning, a political science professor at Flinders University in South Australia state.

"But he has to move a substantial way to meet the U.S. demands, which no prime minister of Australia has faced in years."

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to cut its carbon emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Under a plan to invest A$18 billion in technology this decade, the government expects to achieve a 29% reduction.

Sources say the United States will pledge to cut its emissions by at least half at the summit. read more

Australia's Clean Energy Council wants the government to set a timeline for closing the country's coal-fired power plants.

"If we are on track to achieve net zero by 2050 that does mean all of our coal generation needs to close," said Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton.

Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Colin Packham in Canberra; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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