Morrison accused of hurting Australia’s reputation to please Nationals after climate goals cut from UK trade deal

By Daniel Hurst

The Morrison government has been accused of “trading away diplomatic capital” to appease the Nationals, after revelations Australia pressed the UK to remove specific climate targets from the free trade agreement with Britain.

Labor labelled the stance as proof that the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was “willing to trash Australia’s interests and reputation in order to appease Barnaby Joyce and his band of backbench climate sceptics”.

Morrison confirmed on Thursday that the government had opposed including the Paris agreement’s specific temperature goals, because the deal was meant to be “about trade”.

“It wasn’t a climate agreement, it was a trade agreement,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra. “In trade agreements I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements I deal with climate issues.”

Morrison said the government was committed to the Paris agreement, while also declaring the mining sector was “critical to Australia’s future” and “of course we’ll keep on mining”.

The Guardian understands climate was an issue throughout the free trade agreement negotiations. The UK’s push for stronger climate commitments emerged as a sticking point, together with the concerns of UK farmers about Australia’s push for stronger market access for Australian agricultural exporters.

Boris Johnson, the host of the G7 summit in Cornwall in June, was keen to unveil the UK’s first post-Brexit trade agreement with a country outside the EU. Observers had viewed the UK as being in more of a rush than Australia to get the deal across the line.

By contrast, the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU, signed last December, included an explicit commitment to the Paris temperature goals while recognising “the importance of taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

In that agreement, the UK and the EU each committed to effectively implementing the Paris agreement, “of which one principal aim is strengthening the global response to climate change and holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels”.

According to Sky News in the UK – which first broke the story – British ministers agreed to Australia’s request to remove explicit temperature commitments from their FTA, although the document will still reference the Paris agreement more generally.

Sky News reported that an email from a senior official, sent last month, indicated Liz Truss, the UK’s trade secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, had decided the government could “drop both of the climate asks” from the text “in order to get the Australia FTA over the line”.

The UK’s “climate asks” included “a reference to Paris Agreement temperature goals”, according to the email.

Labor’s climate change and energy spokesperson, Chris Bowen, said the report was “the black and white proof that Morrison’s spin on climate action is just that”.

Bowen said it was a “a race to feed a world hungry with demand for renewables” but the prime minister was “busy trading away diplomatic capital to ensure we don’t meet the Paris agreement that Tony Abbott signed Australia up for”.

“This shows Mr Morrison is willing to trash Australia’s interests and reputation in order to appease Barnaby Joyce and his band of backbench climate sceptics,” Bowen said.

Labor’s climate spokesman Chris Bowen.
Labor’s climate spokesman Chris Bowen. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Labor’s trade spokesperson, Madeleine King, said Australia needed “a government that takes its international relationships seriously”, rather than “treating trade agreements like trophies or baubles”.

The leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, said: “Refusing to sign the United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement if it included climate goals shows just how far the Liberals are willing to go to placate their fossil fuel donors.”

David Ritter, the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said it was “embarrassing and shameful that Australia has been exposed as actively undermining the global Paris climate goal in this way”.

“Cutting a trade deal with the UK government with climate temperature commitments secretly removed is the latest act of wilful climate obstruction,” Ritter said.

Trade minister plays down move

The trade minister, Dan Tehan, played down the significance of the change, saying the agreement still “recognises we’re signed up to Paris and that we’ll meet our Paris targets, which we will do hands down”.

But Tehan confirmed the government opposed including the specific temperature goals. “We like our free trade agreements to actually be about free trade,” he told Brisbane radio station 4BC.

The Guardian asked Tehan’s office on Thursday evening a series of questions, including why it would be a problem to have the temperature commitments enshrined in the FTA if the government was committed to the Paris agreement.

Tehan offered a general response, insisting Australia “has remained consistent that all our FTAs should focus on international co-operation and meeting existing multilateral environment commitments”.

“Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, preferably by 2050,” the minister said.

Morrison has faced resistance from the Nationals to the idea of making a concrete pledge to achieve net zero by 2050, rather than just expressing it as a preference.

Joyce, the deputy prime minister, declined last week to say he accepted four key statements from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, saying he would not be “bullied” or “berated” on the issue.

Joyce said he and the Nationals would be seeking to protect regional Australia, and Morrison should explain to Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “what we can do and what we can’t do”.

The government says it is focused on developing low-emissions technology that can also help developing countries cut their emissions, and has promised to release a long-term emissions strategy before the UK-hosted conference in Glasgow.

But the government is expected to come under further pressure over climate policy when the foreign minister and the defence minister meet face-to-face with their US counterparts in Washington next week.


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