As Prime minister Scott Morrison prepares to finally relent to mounting local and international pressure on Australia to adopt a net zero emissions target, the usual backbench agitators within the Nationals are already seeking to undermine the commitment with special carve-outs.
In doing so, the Nationals could be about to sell out Australia’s farmers in an effort to protect the coal industry.
Morrison has been dragged, unwillingly, into conceding that Australia will need to adopt a specific commitment to reach zero net emissions by 2050 – but even this commitment is at risk of being undermined by pressure from within the Coalition government.
But excluding agriculture from Australia’s climate change targets would almost certainly do more harm than good.
Successive Australian federal governments have been reliant on measures within the agricultural sector to meet international climate commitments.
In fact, most of Australia’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol have been achieved through the creative use of ’emissions reductions’ sourced through the accounting of land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) credits.
Some within the Nationals ranks have made clear where their motivations sit – former deputy leader Bridget McKenzie told ABC Radio National on Tuesday morning that the party would not support a net-zero target unless the agricultural, mining and manufacturing sectors were carved out.
“The Nationals have been very, very clear, we won’t be taking a blind leap of faith on a zero emissions by 2050,” McKenzie told the ABC.
“We don’t have a plan in front of us. And until we see the details and understand how over the next 30 years, this emission reduction target will be implemented. We can’t be asked to sign up to it because they need it will be our industries and it will be our communities that pay the ultimate price.”
This has been an argument echoed by others within the Nationals ranks, including former cabinet members Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan, who have both advocated for the growth of Australia’s coal industry, despite forecasts of the impacts of increased global warming suggesting Australian agricultural lands would be devastated by increased frequency of extreme weather events.
In a joint opinion piece published in The Australian, Joyce and Canavan said that they believed a target of net zero emissions would prevent the growth of the Australian agricultural sector.
“This is why the Nationals have always been opposed to a net-zero target. Even before you consider the impact on our mining and manufacturing industries, a net-zero emissions policy would destroy any hope of expanding Australian farming,” the duo wrote.
But this runs counter to the positions of some of Australia’s leading farming advocacy groups, which have argued that a commitment to strong climate targets would help drive innovation within the sector, protect Australian exports from potential carbon tariffs, as well as helping to limit the damage set to be caused by global warming.
The growing list of farming groups that back the adoption of a net-zero target include the National Farmers Federation and Meat and Livestock Australia – neither of which could be labelled a ‘green group’.
Responding to suggestions that the sector could be left out of any measures to reduce emissions, National Farmers Federation CEO Tony Mahar warned against the government leaving farmers worse off.
“Farmers are in the box seat to seize the opportunities from a reduced emissions future – and many are already doing just that. Any policy that restricts opportunities available to farmers and rural and regional communities would clearly be a negative outcome,” Mahar said.
“A demonstrated proactive approach to emissions reduction, is also a factor for continued and expanded access to valuable export markets.”
Farmers for Climate Action added that the agricultural sector was also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and that supporting the sector to be involved in measures to reduce emissions would help the industry prosper into the future.
“Facing more frequent and severe droughts, floods and bushfires, Australian farmers are on the frontlines of climate change in this country,” Farmers for Climate Action deputy chair, Dr Anika Molesworth, said.
“Acting on climate change also presents a tremendous opportunity for regional Australia to benefit from the creation of new jobs in clean energy generation, manufacturing and ecosystem restoration work.”
“Rather than being omitted from a national target of net zero by 2050, Australian farmers are calling out for extra funding for research and development, so that they can reach net zero quickly and continue to provide high quality food and fibre to the world.”