The Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will have to navigate a slippery path when the Nationals begin discussing Scott Morrison’s evident desire to embrace a 2050 net-zero emissions target.
Although Morrison has not adopted the target, and has put conditions on his move towards it, all the signs are that he wants to do so in coming months.
But this would require the minor Coalition partner to sign up. Nationals sources say they expect the issue to be canvassed at next Monday’s regular party meeting.
The Nationals are divided, putting McCormack, whose leadership is perennially under attack from a group within the party, in a very difficult position.
Some Nationals are sceptical of the assurance given by Morrison last week that regional Australia would not be left worse off in any change in the government’s climate policy. He insisted any change would only be driven by technology and not involve higher taxes.
The minimum price for a Nationals’ sign up would be the exemption of agriculture, which accounts for about 13% of total emissions.
Adopting the 2050 target would boost Australia’s currently low international credibility on climate change, which has been further highlighted by the election of the Biden administration with its big ambitions.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud would be disposed to finding a way to adopting the target.
Littleproud told the ABC on Monday: “The National Party’s made it very clear, that until we can be honest with the Australian public about how you reach net zero by 2050, we’re simply signing up to platitudes”.
But even with the carve out of agriculture, and other aid for farmers, a move to the target is being strongly resisted by former resources minister Matt Canavan and some other Nationals backbenchers. Canavan, interviewed on Sky, said he was prepared to “fight like hell”.
“I don’t think we should be talking about the weather in 30 years time” but instead concentrating on more pressing matters, he said.
Former leader Barnaby Joyce told The Conversation Morrison was being very clever.
He “has inspired the Nationals to have negotiations on what they will or won’t accept on a policy he has not even announced”.
Joyce said there was concern among Nationals “if we get this wrong and go to an election, it could be catastrophic”.
He said McCormack “has to be tough enough to say ‘no’ and mean it – otherwise you are going to get whatever they dish up”.
The National Farmers Federation reiterated on Monday “farming and agriculture cannot be worse off going forward with any carbon commitments or emissions reduction schemes”.
CEO Tony Mahar said: “The NFF has a clear climate change policy that supports an economy-wide [net carbon zero] 2050 target with two clear caveats – that there is an economically viable pathway forward and agriculture is not worse off”.
Mahar said farmers were well placed to seize the opportunities from a reduced emissions future, and many were doing so.
He said much work was being done, led by government and industry, on measuring agriculture’s contribution to sequestering and reducing emissions, particularly in the complex area of soil carbon.
“It is important this work is completed before determining agriculture’s role in any national emissions reduction target,” he said.
“Care needs to be taken that agricultural land does not get transferred into carbon sinks that are subeconomic, havens for feral plants and animals and a fire risk.
"Offsetting is a legitimate solution that must meet economic viability thresholds that allow benchmarked income and proper management.”
NSW environment Minister Matt Kean last week criticised as “ridiculous” Morrison’s saying he wouldn’t commit to the 2050 target before he could say how it would be achieved.
“[US president John] Kennedy didn’t know how to get to the moon when he set the target,” Kean said.
“Let’s set the goal — and I have every confidence in the Australian people, our industry and their enterprising nature to be able to hit that goal.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra