Under-pressure Australia 'welcomes' Biden climate pledge

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia's prime minister welcomed president-elect Joe Biden's vow to return the US to the Paris climate accord on Monday, even as he faces mounting pressure to revamp his government's climate targets.

Biden's vow to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 leaves Australia as one of the few advanced countries still lacking such a target.

The sparsely populated continent produces relatively low emissions but is one of the world's largest exporters of both coal and gas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison -- who has soft-pedalled efforts to tackle climate change -- said Biden's promise to re-enter the Paris agreement was "welcome", adding that the "United States has always been welcome to rejoin".

On Monday, an independent lawmaker introduced a bill to parliament in Canberra that would codify the net-zero pledge -- which all of Australia's states and territories have already vowed, but the conservative government has refused to match at a federal level.

In the face of climate-worsened bushfires, floods and drought, around 90 percent of Australians say climate change is an important or critical threat to the country, according to a poll by Sydney's Lowy Institute.

Morrison, whose conservative Liberal-National coalition contains a smattering of climate sceptics, dodged the question of a 2050 target.

"Australia will always set its policies based on Australia's interests," he said, while noting that pledges from countries such as New Zealand included "qualifications", carving out exceptions for critical industries.

Ahead of the next UN climate summit in Glasgow this year, Morrison had already been under pressure over the way Australia accounts for emissions.

Critics have accused Morrison's government of using an accounting trick to meet Paris targets, by using credits gained under the Kyoto protocol.

"There will now be increased pressure on Australia to abandon its proposed use of so-called Kyoto carry-over credits," said Richie Merzian, a climate and energy expert at the Australia Institute.

Morrison has long insisted that Australia "met and beat" its emissions targets under the Kyoto global agreement and would "do the same when it comes to our Paris commitments as well".

Morrison also invited Biden to visit Australia for next year's 70th anniversary of an Australia-New Zealand-US treaty that underpins the two antipodean nations' defence.