Rural Liberals are backing a move towards a net zero emissions target despite warnings from some within the federal Nationals that regional Australia would “pay the cost” of decarbonising the economy.
The shifting support for the target – including from conservatives who have previously railed against emissions reduction policies – comes as a new report reiterates that Australia ranks among the worst performers in the G20 in addressing the climate crisis.
Ahead of a crucial meeting of the Nationals party room on Sunday where MPs will consider the Morrison government’s plan for emissions reduction cuts, Liberal MPs are speaking in favour of more ambitious targets.
It followed the Reserve Bank deputy governor, Guy Debelle, warning on Thursday that Australia faced an intensifying risk of global investors divesting bonds or equity if the country did not join other nations in making a 2050 net zero emissions commitment.
Rowan Ramsey, the Liberal MP for the seat of Grey in South Australia, said he was comfortable with “how the conversation is going” around the government’s climate policy and he believed there was an upside for electorates such as his.
Grey covers a large area of regional South Australia and takes in agriculture towns as well as the heavy industrial cities of Port Pirie and Whyalla. The Leigh Creek coalmine in the seat closed in 2015. Whyalla became a focus of the Coalition’s fight against Labor’s climate policy when Tony Abbott suggested in 2011 that the town would be “wiped off the map” by a carbon price.
Ramsey said he remained “sceptical” of long-term targets and the mechanism for counting carbon abatements but he believed there were opportunities for the industrial sector.
“We can’t have our heads in the sand on this, we have to face up to what the world is doing and what our responsibilities are. So I think we should have an intelligent debate, which can be a little difficult sometimes,” Ramsey told Guardian Australia.
“There is plenty of upside for us participating in the changes for the industrial wing,” he said, pointing to a potential hydrogen hub on the Eyre Peninsula and a suggestion by the Whyalla steelworks owner, Sanjeev Gupta, to transform it into a green steel operation.
“The government’s core underlying premise that this will be a technology-led transition is completely correct.”
Ramsey said it was “far more important” for the government to update its short- and medium-term targets than the 2050 commitment.
He also said he did not believe regions would “cop it in the neck” from the shift in policy after the Nationals leader in the Senate, Bridget McKenzie, said this week the regions would “pay the cost”.
“That’s why we need it to be technology-led, and if we can implement these changes with minimal impact, then the region’s won’t be smashed.”
Melissa Price, the MP for the seat of Durack, which covers most of regional Western Australia, including the Pilbara mining province, also backed the move to net zero.
“As a regional Liberal MP, I need to ensure that the interests of my constituents – including the farmers, the miners and the fishers – are protected,” she said. “For me, their interests are always front of mind … that is why I support technology over taxes in helping us achieve a target of zero net emissions by 2050.”
The environment minister, Sussan Ley, has also publicly backed moving to net zero as quickly as possible, telling ABC radio this week she believes “there are huge advantages” for regional Australia.
Other rural Liberals such as the trade minister, Dan Tehan, and the WA MP Rick Wilson have also backed the aspiration of net zero by 2050, provided the agricultural sector is protected.
Ahead of the Nationals meeting on Sunday, the MP for the seat of Mallee, Anne Webster, said she was “very interested” in the role of hydrogen, and wanted to make sure that there were jobs in her electorate resulting from any policy change.
“My issue is that our regions should benefit, not suffer from any targets that we make and timelines that go with those targets,” Webster said.
“It’s imperative that we ensure that our agricultural sectors, and our communities, stand to benefit and to thrive, grow, develop more jobs, develop more opportunities, and I’m sure that that is possible, it is just the how, and so I am waiting to see.”
Webster said she wanted her Nationals colleague Darren Chester, who represents the seat of Gippsland but is taking a break from the party, to attend the meeting. “He brings a lot of wisdom to the table and I certainly encourage him to attend.”
The Nationals MP for the NSW seat of Lyne, David Gillespie, said he was confident the Coalition would “sort it out” after the Nationals saw the detail of the government’s proposal for net zero.
“I, like many others in the party, am waiting to see what has been proposed. Because at the moment, it is just a catchphrase,” Gillespie told the ABC.
The positioning ahead of this weekend’s meeting came as a report by Climate Transparency, a collection of climate analysts, found Australia ranked near the bottom of the G20 in nearly all areas in addressing the problem.
The report said the country continued to subsidise new fossil fuels and had no significant national policies aimed at reducing emissions. While support for renewable energy was increasing, it said that was due to action by state governments, not the commonwealth.
Bill Hare, the chief executive of Climate Analytics, said the result should not be surprising to anyone following climate action in Australia. “We haven’t seen a single policy put in place by the federal government that will reduce emissions in any sector,” he said.
The report found Australia had spent US$7.66bn on fossil fuel subsidies last financial year, mostly on petroleum, and had made commitments to offer discounted loans to gas projects and support for new fossil fuel infrastructure, carbon capture and storage and diesel fuel storage.
A separate report by the independent Climate Targets Panel, including the former Liberal leader John Hewson and three leading climate scientists, said their analysis suggested Australia should be cutting emissions by 74% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2035 if it was to act in line with what was required to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
It said Australia’s role in limiting warming to 2C would require a 50% target by 2030 and net zero by 2045. “There’s only a fixed amount of emissions we can put into the atmosphere before it’s too late,” Hewson said.