Liberal MPs in metropolitan seats have declared the Morrison government needs to adopt both a net zero target, and a roadmap demonstrating how that commitment will be met, because one doesn’t work without the other.
The concerted push by Liberals comes as the Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, has attempted to reassure the trenchant net zero opponents within his own ranks that Australia’s coal industry is not under threat.
The Nationals met virtually on Monday amid rising tensions within the government about whether or not the Coalition will adopt a net zero by 2050 target ahead of November’s Cop26 conference in Glasgow.
Guardian Australia understands that net zero was discussed, but Monday’s meeting resolved to delay a substantive conversation until National MPs can meet in person, likely when parliament resumes in mid-October.
The Victorian National Darren Chester, who supports net zero, was not at Monday’s meeting because he has parted ways with his party room at least until parliament resumes next month. Colleagues say one of the most significant opponents of the target, Queensland MP George Christensen, was also not on the call.
While several MPs, including the party’s former leader, Michael McCormack, favour pragmatism as long as the interests of regional Australians are safeguarded during the transition, some Nationals are implacably opposed to adopting a net zero target.
As Coalition tensions persisted, there was also a fresh round of speculation about whether or not the prime minister would attend the Glasgow conference. The government is working to a timetable of unveiling new commitments next month, ahead of Cop26.
The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said the government was still working through who would represent Australia. “It is a significant undertaking, as you know it involves the two-week domestic quarantine as well, so no final decisions have been made.”
With some Queensland MPs digging in their heels, Guardian Australia understands the energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, has floated the possibility of the government agreeing to a roadmap but not the target. Taylor is pulling together a new roadmap with input across the government intended to demonstrate how Australia could meet a net zero commitment.
But with senior figures, including Josh Frydenberg and the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, arguing the economic case for net zero, Liberal backbenchers insist everything has to be in the mix.
The member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman, told Guardian Australia he had “consistently argued that we need to make net zero a commitment or target for 2050”.
That mid-century target needed to be backed by a roadmap of how to deliver the commitment, because it was “hard to divorce the two”. “You need to demonstrate how you are going to do the hard yards but you also need to have a clear idea of where you are going,” Zimmerman said.
The member for Higgins, Katie Allen, said the government needed to adopt the target and “bring all of Australia along on that journey” including people in the regions.
“It’s time for Australia to commit to a net zero carbon 2050 target,” Allen said. “A commitment like that will provide historic momentum for the creation of large scale clean energy industries and jobs for the future.”
The member for Mackellar, Jason Falinski, said he supported both “a net zero target by 2050 and an updating of the 2030 roadmap”.
Nationals are yet to see the roadmap. The party’s deputy leader David Littleproud told reporters in Queensland on Monday “there is no decision to be made” until that roadmap was presented to the Nationals.
After Monday’s virtual meeting, Joyce, the deputy prime minister, told the ABC Australia’s coal industry faced no threat from the Morrison government.
Joyce noted that fossil fuels were Australia’s biggest export earner. “My message to the coal industry will be the coal industry continues doing the job it’s been doing for our nation now for some time.”
He said as Australia made a transition from fossil fuels “to an alternate fuel source – it won’t be jumping off a cliff and hoping to get a parachute on the way down”.
“We understand there may be a transition to other fuel sources and we’ve got to make sure we’re part of that transition, [but] any sort of jump a cliff now will … put Australia in a financially perilous position because you lose the biggest income earner,” Joyce said.