It’s not impossible for Morrison to land a grand emissions bargain. It’s just very hard | Katharine Murphy
Back in the olden times, when circumstances required John Howard to backflip, he made a performance of it. Howard’s purpose was simple: the prime minister wanted everyone to notice the shift.
Scott Morrison isn’t from the Howard backflip school. His style is more liquid. But I think Morrison wanted voters to notice when his language shifted significantly on Australia achieving net zero emissions by 2050 – a pivot that followed Joe Biden’s victory in the US election.
Weirdly enough, Joel Fitzgibbon cut him off at the pass.
Morrison’s redux happened in the week where Fitzgibbon decided to blow up Labor over its climate change policy. As voters were treated to the week-long Festival of Fitzgibbon, Morrison bumped 2050 up from being something out on the never-never to an emissions reduction target – “Australia would like to meet that as quickly as possible, as quickly as it’s able”.
Because his operating environment is so noisy, Morrison has had to telegraph this change consistently since the beginning of last November to make sure voters have caught it. Each repetition contains a tiny advance. Now, his designated formulation is: “Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050.”
We’ll get to policy substance shortly, but there is one more thing to note on the messaging. Morrison is trying to execute a reposition on climate change policy while continuing to weaponise the issue against Labor. In the past, the Coalition has weaponised emissions reduction targets. The government (naturally) has sensible ones. Labor (naturally) has economy-wrecking ones.
Given Morrison is currently exploring whether he can sue for peace on the mid-century target without blowing up the Coalition, he needs to invent another point of contrast with his opponents.
Now we have the false binary of taxes versus technology. Labor is cast in this parable as supporting taxes (never mind that Labor’s scheme was a carbon price). The Coalition, being the self-appointed smart cookies in the story, will achieve the necessary transformation to net zero by technology (never mind that the government’s technology strategy is as invisible as Labor’s taxing strategy).
There’s another complication. If you listen to Morrison, the government’s policy on net zero is “we’re on the way”. If you listen to various Nationals, the message is different. You hear something more ambiguous, with locutions ranging between yeah, maybe, someday, as long as nothing changes, to over my dead body, and let’s build a new coal-fired power station. This fraught dynamic brings us to substance.
There are several dimensions to substance, so let’s walk through them carefully. This bit needs to be very clear. When it comes to achieving net zero, it doesn’t matter what the government says. What matters is what the government does.
The Coalition’s current suite of policies will not get Australia to net zero. Australia is currently not on track to meet the 2030 target. The latest emissions projections estimate that Australia will come in at 22% below 2005 levels at the end of the decade. On the official numbers, our performance against the 2030 target is improving, but the target is a 26% to 28% cut compared with 2005 levels, not 22%.
The government trumpets its technological approach to abatement. OK then, let’s look at one reasonably important element of technology: electric vehicles. A strategy released Friday – amid the alleged pivot – assumes that transport emissions continue to rise over the decade.
So the rhetoric doesn’t match the substance. The only way this will change is if Morrison can achieve a grand bargain with the Nationals. For people who care about progress, there is a sliver of good news here. Behind the scenes, work is under way on some concrete propositions.
Soil carbon (much loved by the Coalition as an abatement mechanism that doesn’t show off) has been in play for years as a potential carbon sink. A soil strategy is part of the Coalition’s technology roadmap. Angus Taylor says he wants to reduce the costs of soil carbon measurement to under $3 per hectare per year, making that process more attractive to farmers.
In addition to soil, the government is also mulling a new carbon credit that would give farmers financial incentives to increase their biodiversity and improve land and vegetation management on their properties. Options for that are being scoped out now.
A scheme like that would have two points of buy-in for farmers, potentially. The first would be the financial incentives to lock more carbon in soil and vegetation. (Just as well Tony Abbott isn’t around any more, because he’d be screeching apocalyptically about hidden carbon taxes right about now.) It’s also possible that participants in this carbon market for farmers would also be able to trumpet their participation – branding their products sustainable, and charging a premium.
These sorts of policy concepts, in the event they can emerge from the fudge factory with some rigour attached, aren’t a magic bullet, but they would assist the national abatement task and be good for the interests of farmers.
Viewing this substantively, a soil strategy is a necessary part of the arsenal, because the climate science tells us we need to do all the things to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. But with industrial emissions rising, abatement from soil carbon is likely a drop in the ocean.
Morrison’s grand bargain is as much about politics as it is about substance. But the question he faces is: is the succour for the Nationals sufficient?
We can be very direct now. The farmers’ party is now the coal party. It’s not clear, at least to me, whether or not Morrison can corral the Nationals on a net zero commitment with the sweetener of practical initiatives designed to help the people they claim to represent.
This sounds completely insane, of course: the farmers’ party backing fossil fuels in perpetuity over the practical interests of farmers, the people who built their political movement. A strange kind of derangement.
But if you think about this in nuts and bolts, you see the difficulties. Think about those Queensland National MPs who increased their margins in the 2019 election by making coal in perpetuity a statement of political identity for regional Australians; a proxy for nothing needs to change.
Morrison is naturally pliable. But not every politician is blessed with the talent of shapeshifting.
It is very hard to imagine George Christensen or Ken O’Dowd or Michelle Landry going home and telling blue-collar workers they’ve recruited from Labor that the government has now signed up to net zero, and that’s tremendous. Last election, they told blue-collar workers they would stop Labor implementing a net zero target. This would be one hell of a circle to square.
If you listen closely, you can hear senior Nationals trying to work on some practice lines. The resources minister, Keith Pitt, during a television interview on Friday was asked several times how he could continue to argue that the coal sector wasn’t in decline given the direction of climate policy.
Pitt danced very fast. Coal was an up and down sort of business, he ventured. The journalist persisted, so Pitt had to break out carbon capture and storage. CCS would mean that coal power lived forever in a carbon-constrained world. (Narrator: Hmm, not if the power being generated is significantly more expensive with CCS, Keith.)
It’s certainly not impossible for Morrison to land a substantive grand bargain. It’s just pretty hard.
Depressingly, it is possible the prime minister won’t lose sleep if his grand bargain doesn’t ultimately cohere, because he will back himself to land his “I heart net zero” campaign in the city while reserving his right to see fossil fuels in the regions of Queensland until the giant vacuum cleaner sucking carbon from the sky turns up to rescue us from disaster.
How long Morrison gets away with this monumental fudge is a function of three things. One: will Australians maintain vote-changing anxiety about climate change in the middle of a pandemic and still-nascent economic recovery?
Two: will Morrison face meaningful pressure from his global peers? Will Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and the Europeans make life uncomfortable for Australia?
Three: will journalists turn up to work over the next 12 months, and by that I mean getting to the heart of what is, or is not, happening with climate policy – as opposed to amplifying a pivot devoid of policy?