Anthony Albanese sidesteps questions about a Labor medium-term emissions target

By Katharine Murphy

The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has declined to say whether Labor will articulate a medium-term emissions reduction target before the next federal election.

Albanese’s sidestep followed Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation from the Labor frontbench on Tuesday after a lengthy internal dispute about climate policy that culminated in a blow-up at shadow cabinet on Monday night.

The Labor leader in June gave a clear commitment to unveiling a medium-term emissions reduction target consistent with climate change science before the next election. But more recently, Albanese has flagged a “process of going up to net zero emissions by 2050”.

Asked on Tuesday whether Labor would outline a target or a process, Albanese said: “The position is pretty clear. We have net zero emissions by 2050, and we will have a complete announcement, including how we get there, before the election.”

Pressed again on whether a process would include a medium-term target, Albanese said Labor had agreed to the 2050 target and “it will all be there”.

While Labor agreed to adopt the mid-century target in one of its first major policies after the 2019 election loss, Fitzgibbon, the outgoing shadow resources minister, and the shadow climate change minister, Mark Butler, have been at odds for months on a new target for the 2030s.

The Morrison government’s 2030 target is a 26%-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. Labor at the last election proposed an emissions reduction target of 45%.

Fitzgibbon has been campaigning for Labor to adopt the same medium-term target as the Coalition, while Butler says the trajectory for abatement needs to be consistent with the climate science, which means the 2030 commitment needs to be higher than the government’s.

Labor has been wanting to use the election of Joe Biden in the United States as an opportunity to increase political pressure on the Morrison government over its sub-optimal climate policies. Biden is pledging to sign America up to a net zero position and bring the US back into the Paris accord.

But over the weekend, Fitzgibbon declared it was “delusional” to think Biden’s victory was in any way connected to a growing voter constituency for climate action, and then proceeded to do a series of television interviews highlighting the seats Labor would lose at the next election if Labor didn’t wind back ambition.

Fitzgibbon’s post-Biden television blitz was the last straw for many colleagues.

Guardian Australia has revealed that anger boiled over both in a meeting of the left caucus in Canberra on Monday afternoon, and then at a shadow cabinet meeting on Monday evening.

Monday night’s shadow cabinet discussion began with Albanese expressing annoyance that Labor’s media strategy following the election of Biden – a strategy that was intended to increase political pressure on the government – had been blown off course by ill-disciplined commentary.

Guardian Australia understands Fitzgibbon responded to Albanese’s comment by saying: “I’m in the room, you shouldn’t speak about me like I’m not here.”

A heated discussion ensued between Albanese and the shadow resources minister. At one point, Fitzgibbon’s rightwing colleague, the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, also interjected forcefully, branding Fitzgibbon’s ill-disciplined conduct a “disgrace”.

Fitzgibbon then announced on Tuesday morning he would leave the shadow ministry and continue to make his arguments from the backbench. He has been replaced by fellow rightwinger Ed Husic.

Scott Morrison, meanwhile, has been gradually warming up his language on the net zero by 2050 target his government has spent months resisting.

On Monday, Morrison told parliament Australia would like to achieve a net zero emissions reduction ambition “as quickly as possible” – but one of his own backbenchers, the conservative MP Craig Kelly, later declared the Coalition signing up to net zero would be an act of “political suicide”.

On Tuesday, Morrison said the government would like to achieve the net zero target and “we have an aspiration” to get there “as we have already committed to under the Paris accord in the second half of this century”.

But the prime minister declared he would not make the commitment when he couldn’t quantify the cost of it. Despite this hesitation, the government is pursuing other energy policies which impact on Australia’s climate commitments without outlining the total costs either in dollars or emissions.

Rather than pursuing a green recovery to the economic shock delivered by the coronavirus pandemic, the Morrison government has been foreshadowing a “gas-led” recovery without costing the foreshadowed interventions, which include opening new gas basins, and potentially underwriting new infrastructure.

The October budget included funding of $52.9m to unlock more supply of gas and boost transportation infrastructure – but the government has also held open the option of taxpayer underwriting for priority gas projects, streamlining approvals, or creating special purpose vehicles for new investment.

As well as failing to specify the costs of its gas plan, the government has also never produced any analysis quantifying the costs of climate inaction.

A recent report from Deloitte Access Economics found that Australia’s economy would be 6% smaller, there will be 880,000 fewer jobs and $3.4tn in economic opportunities will be lost if the climate crisis went unchecked for the next 50 years.

The same analysis found policies consistent with a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and keeping global warming to 1.5C could expand the Australian economy by 2.6%, or $680bn, and create 250,000 jobs.

Late last month a centre-right thinktank with links to former Liberal ministers Robert Hill and Christopher Pyne warned that failing to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 would diminish Australia’s international standing and harm its economic competitiveness.

The report from the Blueprint Institute said as major trading partners accelerated their decarbonisation, Australia faced two risks – a rapid decline in demand for carbon-intensive exports, such as coal and gas, and the possible introduction of carbon tariffs.

The report noted that China and Japan – two countries on the path to decarbonisation by mid-century – “together account for 52% of our coal exports and 90% of our iron-ore exports”.

“China’s declaration that it will achieve net zero by 2060 should be of particular concern to Australia,” the report said. “While this might be viewed with some scepticism, the boldness of the commitment portends a grave future for our coal exports.”