What’s in a word?
When Scott Morrison addressed the Press Club in February 2020, he declared: “our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”.
By inserting “preferably” into an already well-worn phrase, Morrison began his long carbon trek: it signalled his own climate conversion.
Remember, this is the guy who once wielded a lump of coal on the floor of Parliament, but here he was at the start of what’s turned out to be a 20-month campaign to convince his party room to adopt the crucial emissions reduction target.
Now, Morrison appears to be on the verge of a deal with the National Party and is preparing to head to the Glasgow Climate Conference, COP26, armed with a commitment to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by the middle of the century.
This will be seen by our allies and neighbours as the very least Australia can do to tackle the “climate crisis” that Morrison and the leaders of India, Japan, and the United States spoke of when they signed a joint statement in Washington last month.
He will never satisfy his political opponents, with senior sources conceding the Coalition has a “credibility deficit” on this issue.
But given Australia’s long and tortuous history with climate policy, getting agreement on this target will be an achievement — albeit a modest one.
As one Liberal source put it, there is a “hell of a lot at stake”, and the next seven days will be critical as Morrison finalises one of the most important negotiations of his leadership; getting the junior Coalition partner over the line.
Where do the Nationals stand?
Not for the first time, the 21 members of the Nationals party-room find themselves as the centre of Australia’s climate change debate.
Over the years, the party has helped bring down the carbon tax, an emissions trading scheme, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) — and along with them, a string of political leaders.
But a few things have changed since the last round of the Coalition’s climate battles, when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was trying to get the NEG off the ground.
Globally, and domestically, momentum is building towards the net zero target and the government knows that Australia — already seen as a climate laggard — will face a backlash from investors and trading partners if it refuses to sign up.
The old climate warriors in the Liberal Party are also gone and inner-city Liberals are facing the threat of a highly organised, cashed-up campaign to unseat them from independents running, largely, on a climate platform.
While they’re vocal, the number of Nationals staunchly opposed to the target, regardless of what policy backs it up, is now only about four or five (mainly Queenslanders).
The rest of the party room is at least open to considering net zero, along with the much-anticipated strategy to achieve it, through “technology not taxes”, as we’ve been told ad nauseum.
As Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce put it this week: “Are you going to have them all on the same page? Not a chance.”
On Wednesday, Cabinet will consider the target and strategy to get there, before both the Liberal and National party-rooms get to see it for themselves next week.
That’s when the pointy end of the negotiations will begin.
What do the Nationals want?
The Nationals have been very clear for a long time that they won’t sign up to a target, without a plan to achieve net zero emissions. And that plan, they say, can’t hurt regional communities or cost jobs.
Knowing they hold the upper hand, Nationals frontbenchers have been laying out their claims in recent days, from Bridget McKenzie proposing a mechanism to “pause” any target if it harms the regions, to Keith Pitt demanding a $250 billion bank for miners.
Neither proposal is likely to be accepted but Joyce is determined to ensure rural communities aren’t “done over” like he says they were when Australia met its international climate commitments under the Kyoto protocol, which was signed in 1998 and ratified in 2007.
Basically, Australia decided it could reduce its emissions by banning land clearing in NSW and Queensland.
As Richard Heath from the Australian Farm Institute explains, “by putting land clearing bans in place, those emissions that would have occurred by land clearing were able to be credited against our emissions target reduction, so it was a really easy way to avoid a whole heap of emissions [that] were assumed were going to happen … it went a very significant way to helping Australia meet its Kyoto targets”.
Making it illegal to use parts of their properties was stressful for a lot of farmers who argued they couldn’t do their jobs, and the Nationals don’t want to get burned by any policy that might see a similar outcome again.
What are their constituents saying?
Rural and regional communities are home to the jobs of heavy-emitting industries.
But at the same time, recent and devastating drought and bushfires are front of mind, and climate action is well understood.
Many farmers, for example, are already getting on with the job of reducing their emissions — feeding livestock supplements to reduce methane when cattle and sheep burp, reducing the number of times they turn or disturb the soil, changing the way they carry out burns, and growing more trees to provide homes for wildlife.
Miners too are changing the way they do business, switching to renewable energy sources and new technology.
As major exporters, farmers and miners want to ensure Australia doesn’t lose trade access into global markets if the rest of the world thinks we’re not pulling our weight on climate change.
On this issue, the federal Parliament is playing catch-up to the rest of the country.
If we sign up, how does Australia get to net zero?
While “net zero” has become a buzzword of late, energy experts are keen to point out that it’s not about a zero-emissions economy, it’s about offsetting emissions produced.
This can be done in a few ways; by planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide, by increasing carbon levels in soil, and by using huge vacuum cleaners to “suck” greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and permanently burying them underground, a process known as carbon capture and sequestration.
The Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood says all three remove greenhouse gases, but right now they’re “uncertain, expensive or both”.
“We don’t really understand how we’re going to do this, so we have to put a lot of effort into reducing our emissions now but in the future, applying these emissions removal technologies so that our balance is net zero,” he says.
In the short term, he says, it’ll require huge amounts of money from government.
Ultimately, there are two ways forward from here. Both routes come at unavoidable cost.
One comes with the prospect carbon tariffs, spurned investment and perhaps even relationships with long-term trading partners.
The other is to adopt net zero, embrace the cost as an opportunity to turn it into a money spinner.
At this kind of crossroads, there’s no “preferably” in it.
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