Australia’s distinctly hands-off net-zero plan bets technology—not fossil fuel regulation—will offset emissions

October 26, 2021, 9:33 AM UTC

Australia, long a laggard on climate change, finally joined the world’s leading economies in committing to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 on Tuesday ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate summit that starts on Sunday in Glasgow.

“Australia now has a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and we have a clear plan for achieving it,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “The plan will deliver results through technology, not taxes. It respects people’s choice, and will not force mandates on what people can do or buy.”

But Canberra’s plan is not a promise.

On Tuesday, Morrison refused to commit Canberra’s net-zero pledge to legislation. Canberra’s so-called Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan also avoids mandating any specific restrictions on carbon emissions and avoids introducing a tax on pollution.

“We want our heavy industries, like mining, to stay open, remain competitive, and adapt, so they remain viable for as long as global demand allows,” Morrison said.

Australia’s economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. The country is the world’s largest exporter of coal, earning $47 billion in revenue from coal exports in 2019. Coal accounts for 75% of Australia’s electricity generation, too, while gas provides a further 16%.

Rather than close polluting plants, Canberra’s plan relies on developing new technology—such as carbon capture and sequestration—to offset emissions instead, while allowing heavy industry to continue business as usual.

But Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia’s opposition Labor Party, blasted the government’s new net-zero announcement as a “scam” and said that, by Canberra’s own admission, the new plan adds “nothing new” to the government’s old plan. Which is true enough.

Canberra first outlined its uniquely hands-off approach to achieving net zero last year, when the government published its Technology Investment Roadmap—the genesis of Morrison’s “technology, not taxes” diktat and the basis for Australia’s current net-zero strategy.

The road map outlined several priority “low emissions” technology fields, including carbon capture and hydrogen energy, that Canberra would actively develop by injecting $20 billion worth of funding. The new net-zero plan adds solar energy to that mix.

But carbon capture tech is woefully ineffective, often producing more carbon emissions than it captures. In July, Chevron, operator of the world’s largest carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) project, located in Australia’s Gorgon gas fields, admitted the project hadn’t captured even half the amount of carbon Chevron had promised.

“The technology for carbon capture and storage, whilst it does exist, is nowhere near at the level of wide-scale effectiveness and deployment,” Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick of the University of New South Wales’s Climate Change Research Center said in an interview with Fortune earlier this year.

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