Climate change will be on agenda when Scott Morrison meets Joe Biden in the US

The Biden administration has confirmed climate change will be on the agenda next week when Scott Morrison arrives in Washington for a summit of Quad leaders and for talks with the US president.

Australia’s prime minister on Tuesday confirmed he would travel to Washington from 21 to 24 September. This will be Morrison’s first visit to the US since Joe Biden was elected in 2020.

A statement issued by the White House says next week’s summit of Quad leaders – which is an informal grouping of Australia, the US, India and Japan – underscores Biden’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific region.

The talks are predominantly focused on regional security. But as well as cooperating on responses to the pandemic, promoting regional free trade, and partnering on emerging technologies, the climate crisis would also be on the agenda, the White House statement specified.

Senior figures in the Biden administration have publicly criticised Australia’s lack of ambition on climate action in recent months.

In February, Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry acknowledged “differences” between the US and Australia in tackling climate change while calling for a faster exit from coal-fired power.

Before a US-initiated virtual summit on the climate crisis in April, a Biden administration official told reporters: “I think our colleagues in Australia recognise that there’s going to have to be a shift.

“It’s insufficient to follow the existing trajectory and hope that they will be on a course to deep decarbonisation and getting to net zero emissions by mid-century.”

In August, Dr Jonathan Pershing, Kerry’s deputy, warned Australia’s targets were “not sufficient” and said the Morrison government should be considering a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The Morrison government is currently weighing up what commitments it will take to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November. Morrison has been attempting to telegraph a potential pivot where Australia would commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, but some Nationals oppose the move.

While Morrison has left open adjusting the emissions reduction target for 2030, indications suggest a significant shift of Australia’s medium term target – currently a 26-28% cut on 2005 emissions levels – is unlikely.

In a statement on Tuesday, Morrison said reconvening the Quad group of leaders “reinforces our commitment to the Indo-Pacific Covid-19 recovery, and our efforts towards peace, prosperity and stability in our region”.

The prime minister said the summit represented “four great democracies working in partnership for an Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive, resilient and anchored by shared principles”.

Biden has ordered a review of the security implications of climate change. The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has said climate change is “making the world more unsafe and we need to act”.

Payne and Dutton to hold defence talks

Ahead of next week’s Quad summit, Australia’s foreign affairs minister Marise Payne and the defence minister Peter Dutton are currently en route to Washington for the annual defence talks between the allies known as Ausmin.

Climate will also be on the agenda for those discussions with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Austin. Thursday’s face-to-face “Ausmin” talks between the key allies – the first during the Biden administration – are tipped to result in an expansion of the rotational presence of US Marines in Darwin.

But analysts say the Morrison government’s climate policy may harm Australia’s ability to push for its own priorities with its top security ally when the senior ministers meet.

Payne and Dutton are likely to lobby the Biden administration to maintain a strong US focus on the Indo-Pacific and to support Australia against “economic coercion” from China, according to experts from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Australia is also seeking defence industry cooperation.

Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the US Studies Centre, told a webinar on Tuesday that the US priorities would include securing support for the Biden administration’s approaches to China and agreement on a clear statement on the need for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. That, she said, was “part of a broader administration effort to shore up deterrence against Beijing”.

Patton said climate change would be another priority for the US, with the Biden administration “looking to pull every lever that it has to address climate change”. She said the gap between the US and Australia on climate policy was “an unfortunate perception that Australia should be looking to change”.

“Our position on climate change arguably makes us a less attractive partner and perhaps gives us less standing to push for our own asks that we would have of the US. And, moreover, a failure to address climate change within the alliance context also risks undermining public perceptions of the alliance, because we know that climate change is an important priority especially for younger generations.”

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