Scott Morrison softened his defiant language on climate change action amid UK trade deal

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Scott Morrison softened his defiant language on climate action in a foreign policy speech in June 2021, shortly after officials appeared to have finalised the environment-related parts of the Australia-UK free trade agreement, documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal.

The timing is outlined in government documents obtained by Guardian Australia, alongside draft talking points denying climate policy was causing any delays to the trade negotiations.

The British government was eventually criticised by green groups after it was revealed it had later agreed to Australia’s demands to drop explicit references to the Paris agreement’s goal of making efforts to limit global heating to 1.5C.

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

In a speech in Perth on 9 June 2021, shortly before he travelled to the UK for the G7 summit, Morrison argued his government was “on the pathway” to net zero emissions and wanted to “get there as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”.

But he omitted some of the prepared remarks that could have been seen as an attempt to push back at the international pressure for additional commitments.

According to a draft version that the prime minister’s office had distributed to journalists at 2.20pm on 8 June 2021 under embargo, Morrison was expected to declare that nation states should be “accountable for charting their own path to net zero based on their unique economic structures and energy sources”.

But he did not say that when he addressed the Perth USAsia Centre on 9 June. Morrison also left out the prepared line: “Australia does not support setting sectoral targets or timeframes for decarbonising particular parts of our economy or setting false deadlines for phasing out specific energy sources.”

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade document, obtained under FoI laws, shows a list of environment-related commitments for the free trade agreement dated “8 June 2021 - 18:00” – the evening before the speech.

This document says Australia and the UK “commit to a chapter on trade and environment that will contain provisions affirming commitments under multilateral environmental agreements including the Paris agreement”.

The environment chapter was to be modelled on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) “to the greatest extent possible”, but new areas proposed by the UK would “contain no new substantive commitments”.

These draft environment chapter commitments are identical to what was ultimately announced nine days later when the two governments said they had reached an agreement in principle on the entire FTA.

Dfat refused to confirm the exact timing of the deal on the environment chapter and played down the marking “8 June 2021 - 18:00” above the 11 dot points that were ultimately adopted exactly as written.

“Dates and times on internal documents do not represent the dates and times of ‘agreement in principle’, but are for internal version control purposes only,” a spokesperson for Dfat said.

The spokesperson added that the free trade agreement with the UK “was not finalised until the agreement was signed” months later. This comment reflected the view that, officially, there was no deal on a trade agreement until the whole package was locked in.

Soon after the speech, Morrison had a trilateral meeting planned with Boris Johnson and Joe Biden at the G7 – now known to be a crucial step in advancing Australia’s request to access American nuclear-powered submarine technology in the eventual Aukus deal.

The UK, which also hosted the Cop26 summit in Glasgow later in 2021, and the US had been actively calling on Australia to adopt deeper 2030 targets to help keep the limit of 1.5C of heating within reach.

The omission of the passages pushing back at stronger climate targets and against a deadline to phase out coal-fired power may have been calculated to avoid annoying the US and the UK at a time when the Morrison government needed their help on the security deal.

Morrison proceeded with a prepared line that Australia in 2020 deployed new renewables nearly three times faster than the USA, China and the EU, but added the unscripted comment: “I don’t make those comparisons to reflect on any other nation but more so to highlight the performance that Australia has achieved – and is under-appreciated.”

The bundle of documents released under FoI also shows Dfat provided the office of the trade minister, Dan Tehan, with “selling points” to promote the free trade agreement as at 17 June 2021. These included that the agreement “will support action on climate change through the Paris Agreement”.

Undated talking points – which could have been prepared any time after 1 April 2021 – included a suggested government response if a journalist asked: “Is climate change delaying the FTA negotiations?”

“No,” the suggested response said. “Australia is resolutely committed to the Paris agreement and ambitious climate action.”

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The talking points also said Australia was “confident we can reach agreement with the UK that reflects our mutual interests in environmental and climate-related issues”.

They added that the two countries “share a common approach towards respecting both parties’ right to regulate in pursuit of decarbonisation”.

Another set of talking points said the idea of carbon border tariffs had “not been raised in the FTA negotiations”.

Related: UK urges Australia to scale up climate ambition before G7 summit

Dfat’s spokesperson said: “Talking points produced by the department do not represent the Australian government’s position until they are approved by the relevant minister.”

The documents were uncovered in a search for any Paris agreement-related or climate change-related briefings or submissions regarding the Australia-UK FTA between April 2021 and September 2021. Many of the pages were redacted because they would affect international relationships or disclose cabinet materials.

Morrison’s office did not respond to questions and the British high commission declined to comment.

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