Packing for Glasgow

It’s clear the Morrison Government intends to commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050 in time for the Glasgow climate summit in early November. There is no sudden epiphany, this is pure politics, both national and global.

The groundwork for the Coalition’s climate pivot has been under development for weeks now. Coalition backbenchers in marginal electorates have been calling for the shift for the last few months.

Back room strategists are acutely aware that the tag line of “committing to net zero by 2050” is garnering the same kind of pop status that buzzed around ratifying the Kyoto Protocol ahead of the 2007 election. In the broader electorate no one knows quite what it means, but they think we should do it anyway.

Ignoring that groundswell resulted in political catastrophe for the Coalition. They’re unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Removing net zero from the political table will neutralise one of the few points of differentiation Labor has on climate, having quietly moon-walked away from carbon pricing over the last two years.

The Coalition’s strategic retreat is well advanced. The ground zero of opposition to the commitment has been the party’s base, conservatives and key Nationals. Earlier this month leader Barnaby Joyce, who will have seen the polling too, started to make public signals of détente, offering to trade support for net zero in exchange for regional infrastructure spending. It’s safe to assume he will succeed in this transaction.

In what appears increasingly like a choreographed dance, Nationals backbenchers and moderate Liberal back benchers last week stepped up their calls for net zero. Prime Minister Scott Morrison then said Australia will aim for net zero by 2050 while chatting with US President Joe Biden. It’s always a good way of drawing attention to something.

Federal Treasurer and former Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg warned that failing to commit to net zero would increase borrowing costs for Australian investors. Amidst all of this, the Nationals Party room remains pivotal to the pivot.

New Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was once a key hold out on net zero. Now his conciliatory tone suggests a pragmatic shift is coming. He wants to portray sufficient reluctance on a net zero deal to not lose face with his supporters and to cut the best deal.

The potency of a net zero target by 2050 was it was supposed to frame legislation that would constrain emissions. This key link has been carefully dumped. Making a commitment for a date 29 years away requires no short term policy shifts, like carbon pricing. Morrison’s political focus is squarely in the very short term.

A net zero deal will enable him to join Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the COP26 in Glasgow, neutralise the politics of climate change, and head to an early 2022 poll. That is shaping as a referendum on COVID-19 management. Morrison clearly thinks that’s his best pathway to re-election.