Flat White

Net zero or national defence? Morrison must choose

24 March 2022

4:00 AM

24 March 2022

4:00 AM

Former cosmopolitan elite-in-chief, Adrian Blundell-Wignall (a former head of the OECD) let the mask slip earlier this month when he said:

‘Here is the simple truth. It doesn’t matter where the fossil is burned. The carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere has exactly the same effect on climate change, regardless of whether it is burned here or abroad.’

Putting aside the flawed climate science, Blundell-Wignall’s admission is significant. China’s annual emissions are around thirty times higher than Australia’s. It is futile (again, putting the climate science to one side) for Australia to cut its emissions and to end coal when China continues to build more coal stations and increase its emissions.

But rather than draw the obvious conclusion that Australia should shelve its emissions reduction policies such as Net Zero, Blundell-Wignall argues what we actually need is a carbon tax, because ‘with a carbon tax, other countries would buy less of our coal’.

It’s a touch ironic that just weeks after these comments, the federal government announced it would be sending 70,000 tonnes of coal to Ukraine to support their military and defence efforts against the Kremlin. It seems Tony Abbott was right after all when he said in 2014 at the opening of the Caval Ridge coal mine in central Queensland that ‘coal is good for humanity’, and that ‘coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world, so let’s have no demonisation of coal’.

Still, Blundell-Wignall is at least honest, which is more than can be said of the federal government.

Having won a landslide victory in 2013 on the promise to ‘axe the tax’, and on the back of the victory at the 2019 ‘climate election’, Scott Morrison has spent the better part of three years shifting his focus from the workers of Gladstone to the bureaucrats of Glasgow.

Just before the COP 26 Glasgow climate conference held in October last year, Morrison announced the Coalition would adopt Labor’s policy of Net Zero emissions by 2050. And just after the conference, the government released modelling asserting such a commitment would make us all $2,000 richer by the year 2050.

Promises of green hydrogen, ‘choices not mandates’, and exciting new technologies yet to be discovered – all without costing a single job – makes for a great marketing slogan. But here’s the rub. Australians are still unpersuaded.


The disconnect between the political class and mainstream Australians has even been publicly acknowledged by the member for Longman, Terry Young. 

In February, Young was reported as telling a Liberal Party room meeting that he voted in favour of Net Zero even though the people of Longman didn’t back it. 

It’s likely more than a few more MPs would have followed Young in ignoring their constituents’ preferences if a recent survey by the Institute of Public Affairs is anything to go by.

Over 1,000 Australians were asked a series of questions by marketing firm Dynata between March 4-6 about energy security, Net Zero emissions, and national defence. Some 72 per cent of respondents said they believed reliability or affordability should be the focus of energy policy, and only 28 per cent said meeting Net Zero emissions by 2050 should be the focus.

What is significant about this finding is how far attitudes toward cutting emissions have shifted over the past year. A similar survey undertaken by the Lowy Institute in April 2021, before Scott Morrison committed Australia to Net Zero, found 55 per cent of Australians believed reducing carbon emissions should be a priority of the federal government, while 44 per cent believed reducing household bills (affordability) and reducing the risk of blackouts (reliability) should be a priority (and 1 per cent weren’t sure).

The plummet to those supporting cutting emissions as a priority of energy policy has no doubt been driven by the growing geopolitical uncertainty.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the dependency of Western European nations, such as Germany, on foreign energy supply and the extent to which this can be used as diplomatic and military leverage. It has also highlighted our own vulnerabilities.

Australia’s entire strategic oil reserve is only enough for 1.5 days of domestic consumption, and we lack the capacity to bulk store fuel resources locally. At the turn of the century, Australia had eight operational oil refineries, enough to almost meet our domestic consumption of fuel, however only two remain today.

Worst still, on Scott Morrison’s watch, both BP and ExxonMobil announced they would be closing their respective refineries in Kwinana, Western Australia, and Altona, Victoria.

Further, policies such as Net Zero – by shifting our energy supply basis from coal to solar, wind, and batteries – are making us more reliant on foreign powers.

China, for example, controls approximately 80 per cent of the global supply of rare earths and metals which are used to produce solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. They are also used critical defence manufactures such as weapons and fighter jets. 

Our increasing dependency on foreign energy supplies is completely unnecessary and can only be described as an act of self-sabotage. Australia has over 2,000 years’ worth of coal deposits, around one-third of the world’s known uranium deposits, and an abundance of onshore and offshore oil and gas. Yet government intervention, primarily through emissions mandates, red tape, and outright bans, means these vital resources – which are mission-critical to our national security – stay in the ground underneath our feet.

The tension between pursuing Net Zero and securing our national defence is becoming more apparent to policymakers and to the average person.

The same survey undertaken by the IPA found that 61 per cent of Australians agree the federal government should be more focused on national defence rather than meeting Australia’s Net Zero emissions by 2050 target, while only 39 per cent disagree.

As our region becomes more uncertain by the day, it’s well time that Morrison ditched Net Zero so that Australia can avoid becoming the Germany of the Asia-Pacific.

Daniel Wild is director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs.

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