The resources minister, Keith Pitt, has fired a warning shot at Scott Morrison, declaring he cannot adopt a policy of net zero emissions by 2050 without the backing of the Nationals.
Morrison has been trying to telegraph a pivot on climate policy since the election of Joe Biden as the US president, signalling Australia wants to achieve net zero as soon as possible and “preferably” by 2050.
The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, wants Australia to unveil more ambitious commitments before the UN’s climate change summit in Glasgow in November, and he maximised Morrison’s comments in London this week by saying Australia had already “declared for net zero”.
Morrison is facing pressure from metropolitan Liberals to make the mid-century commitment, as well as sustained pressure from his global peers to do more to reduce emissions sooner.
The Australian prime minister was at the G7 summit in Cornwall last weekend as leaders committed “to ambitious and accelerated efforts to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest, recognising the importance of significant action this decade”.
But a number of National party figures have been signalling for months they are not on board with Morrison’s climate change shift.
Pitt’s clear public warning shot on Thursday, in the wake of the G7 commitments and Johnson’s quip in London, is significant because the Queensland National is a member of the cabinet.
The resources minister said Australia’s climate policy – currently devoid of an official mid-century commitment – had not changed.
“We have not committed to net zero by 2050,” Pitt told the ABC. “That would require the agreement of the Nationals and that agreement has not been reached or sought.”
Asked for his own view, Pitt said: “It is all about the cost and who is paying.”
He said committing to net zero emissions by 2050 would “absolutely cause damage in regional communities” given those communities were reliant on export income from fossil fuels.
Pitt noted the government made decisions collegiately. He said his view was that the Nationals party room would be “unsupportive” of any commitment to net zero.
While Pitt emphasised the cost of a renewables transition on regional Australia, Morrison has been developing other arguments to underpin any shift in position ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow.
In late April, Morrison used a speech to the Business Council of Australia to begin to frame the inevitable transition to a low-emissions economy as a boon for the regions. This was a departure from the “Whyalla wipeout” hyperbole of the Abbott era.
The prime minister noted the transition would be “won” in places like “the Pilbara, the Hunter, Gladstone, Portland, Whyalla, Bell Bay, the Riverina”.
Morrison has stepped back from coal, and now champions gas and hydrogen as transitional fuels, but Pitt told the ABC that coal would be “around for a long time”.
While a recent report by the world’s leading energy agency found fossil fuel expansion must end now if the planet is to address the climate crisis, Pitt on Thursday said Australia would remain in the coal business.
“We expect there will be increased demand. Australia will look to fill that demand with what is a high quality product we can deliver at a very efficient price,” the resources minister said.
When asked about the warning from the International Energy Agency, Pitt said “let’s be real – we have a long history of utilising coal for the nation’s prosperity”.
He said carbon capture and storage would solve the emissions problem associated with fossil fuels. While championing that technology, Pitt decried batteries to store renewable energy as technology that was “nowhere where it needs to be to run the Australian economy or anyone else’s”.