Australia has announced its commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, but does not intend to shut down its coal or natural gas industries along the way.

The government said its “technology-driven” plan would preserve jobs and generate new opportunities for industries and regional Australia.

It stressed that the plan does not involve shutting down coal or gas production, or require the displacement of productive agricultural land.

Australia is one of the world's largest exporters of liquefied natural gas and the second-largest exporter of coal, as well as being a significant coal user for electricity generation.

The plan is guided by five principles: technology not taxes; expanding choices not mandates; driving down the cost of a range of new technologies; keeping energy prices down with affordable, reliable power; and being accountable for progress.

Over the next decade, the government said its existing A$20 billion (US$15 billion) investment in low-emissions technology is expected to unlock at least A$80 billion of total private and public investment, including in clean hydrogen, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and energy storage.

The plan also identifies the potential for continued technology advances and breakthroughs “to unlock ultra-low-cost solar”.

“Our plan is built on a set of key principles, the most important being technology, not taxes,” said the Minister for Industry, Energy & Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor.

“Unlike Labor, we won’t introduce a carbon tax that drives Australian jobs overseas and punishes the most vulnerable in our community through higher prices for electricity and other essentials.”

The net zero target is a political hot potato due to concerns about the impact on the country’s industries, especially coal, but also natural gas and beef.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under pressure from his National Party allies to refrain from undermining traditional industries, but Australia’s earlier reluctance to improve on its target of cutting emissions by up to 28% from 2005 levels and reluctance to set a net zero target attracted criticism domestically and internationally.

Morrison has made it clear that any climate policy the government adopts will include protections for regions dependent on natural resource industries.

Gas industry response

The Australian upstream industry association APPEA responded that gas would help deliver the net zero target.

“Not only does natural gas reduce emissions by replacing coal in power generation, it is also necessary to support more renewables in our electricity system,” it said.

“Multi-billion-dollar technology is already up and running across the country helping to reduce emissions, including CCS, offshore batteries on platforms and installation of renewables to help power our sites.”

APPEA also lauded new investments in producing hydrogen through steam methane reforming, describing this as "the lowest-cost, most rapid way to commercialise this important new fuel”.

Greens Party anger

The leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, described the net-zero plan as “a climate fraud”.

He said there are no increased 2030 targets, which he said are essential because 2050 is too late.

In addition, there is no new money to address climate change. Instead, he said, the plan is based on existing policies and funding that was announced as part of last year’s Technology Investment Roadmap.

Finally, there is no plan to get out of coal and gas, which means there is no plan for a safe climate.

“I’m angry at our prime minister, who has spent years attacking anyone who dared talk about a plan to tackle the climate crisis,” Bandt said.

“I’m angry that after almost nine years in government, after all the warnings, only days before the most important climate conference in a generation, this weak plan is all they could come up with. Australia deserves better.”

Analysts' view

With regional trading partners China, Japan and South Korea already in transition towards net zero and even major oil and gas exporters Russia and Saudi Arabia announcing targets, Australia’s plan was described by global energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie as “a step in the right direction”.

It said the announcement means Australia will need to retool its commodity exports industry to align with the Paris climate targets.

Coal into power is also expected to be phased out by 2035, WoodMac said.

Transforming traditional sectors could offer significant opportunities to capitalise on and protect future revenues, harnessing the country’s huge potential in renewables.

"This will require Australia to become a significant player in low-carbon hydrogen trade as well as being able to offer carbon storage and offset services,” WoodMac said.

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