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Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack during question time

Grattan on Friday: Will bolshie Nationals or Joe Biden have more sway with Morrison on 2050 target?

Many observers have been assuming Scott Morrison’s strategy is to creep towards endorsing the 2050 target of net zero emissions, finally embracing it before the Glasgow climate conference in November.

But this week’s developments suggest the prime minister might have to adopt another course.

He could stay with his present position, which has the target as an aspiration he surrounds with a web of subsidiary policies, such as the multiple bilateral technology agreements he announced while he was overseas.

Morrison’s present commitment, reiterated in his major speech in Perth before leaving Australia, is to reach net zero “as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”.

In London British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in an intriguing but unexplained moment at their joint news conference, stated Morrison had “declared for net zero by 2050”. Of course he hadn’t, and Johnson was aware of that – he has been urging him to do so. We don’t know whether there was intent in Johnson’s comment, or just sloppiness.

Read more: Boris Johnson overstates Morrison's climate ambition, as Australia-UK trade agreement reached

In the mouth of a politician, the word “preferably” is like that handy phrase “the government plans to …” (or “has no plans to …”). It is cheap coinage. It certainly wouldn’t buy much in Glasgow.

But it is useful and it may be the coinage Morrison will need to continue to deal in. Remember we are talking here about political reality, not what is the best policy, which clearly would be to sign up to the target.

We’ve thought Morrison would want to shift before Glasgow so Australia would have a more credible position internationally, respond to the pressure from the US and Britain, and minimise isolation. That’s apart from the electoral implications surrounding an issue many voters feel strongly about.

But Morrison this year has already worn the awkwardness of taking Australia’s weak position through Joe Biden’s “virtual” climate summit and maintaining it during his trip to the G7 meeting.

And even if he changed for Glasgow, other countries wouldn’t be convinced. There’d be no foreign applause. The sharp point of the debate has moved from 2050 to the medium term, and Morrison won’t make Australia’s 2030 targets more ambitious (though he’ll argue it will exceed them and possibly even project to 2035).

The US and the UK have leaned on Morrison, and he hasn’t firmed his 2050 stand. Now, at home, it’s increasingly looking dangerous for him to do so, even though work is under way to map out Australia’s emissions technology plans and what that means for reductions.

It’s a risk-benefit judgment for Morrison, and the risk of moving could be high.

Not all the Nationals oppose the 2050 target but enough of them do – and very strongly – to create a serious obstacle for the PM. The opponents within the minor party are bolshie and willing to fight.

Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie was a minister until she became the fall girl in the sports rorts affair. She doesn’t owe anything to Morrison or her leader, Michael McCormack.

McKenzie was on Sky with Alan Jones this week. “The National Party is the second party in this Coalition government. [It] has not signed up to net zero anything at any time and we’ll take a lot of convincing that that is actually the destination we need to get to,” she said. “Because we know it’ll be our miners, our farmers, our manufacturers that will be paying the price for all this posturing.

"We will not let our people be put under the bus to chase some fake ambition to appease overseas masters.”

In normal circumstances, Morrison might expect the Nationals’ leadership to be able to get a desired result – by pointing out there could be benefits for farmers – regardless of noisy dissidents.

But nothing is normal in the Nationals. It’s a wasps’ nest. Poke a stick in and anything could happen. McCormack, with a tenuous grip on the leadership, could easily be stung to death.

McCormack knows this. Pressed in a Wednesday podcast with The Conversation, he said the Nationals wouldn’t be agreeing to the target this year. When it was put to him, “we can be sure that the Nats would not embrace that target?”, he replied, “Correct”.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: McCormack on 2050. The Conversation789 KB (download)

Resources Minister Keith Pitt told the ABC on Thursday that for the government policy to change to endorsing net zero by 2050 would require the Nationals’ agreement “and that agreement has not been reached or sought”. Asked what the mood of their party room would be now, he said: “I think they’d be unsupportive, but we are yet to have that discussion.”

If Morrison wants to trigger “that discussion”, it could be very messy and divisive in the latter months of this year.

Failing to embrace the target would not do the Coalition any harm in regional seats in Queensland – in fact it would maximise the difference with Labor. But what about climate-sensitive southern seats, such as Higgins in Melbourne and Wentworth in Sydney?

It would obviously be unhelpful. But many of those for whom climate is a major vote-changing issue may have shifted their vote anyway.

The prospects of independent Zali Steggall retaining Warringah would probably be assisted by the government failing to endorse 2050. But the Liberals are not reckoning on regaining this seat unless former NSW premier Mike Baird runs, and he has resisted that.

So while there would be clear costs in staying with the weasel words, “as soon as possible” and “preferably”, they are arguably not as great as a potential blow-up in the Nationals that could have unforeseen consequences.

How embarrassing would failure to have a firm target be for Morrison at Glasgow? Greater if he were there than if he just sent Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Energy Minister Angus Taylor, who wouldn’t be noticed. But will he go?

He’d remember Kevin Rudd’s presence at Copenhagen in 2009 played badly for him. Morrison has said he hopes to go to Glasgow. Could he find a way to avoid an engagement that would have no upside for him? It would be a matter of scheduling.

He’ll be in Rome for the G20 at the end of October. The Glasgow conference, which runs from November 1-12, is expected to have a leaders’ segment at the start, facilitating them going straight from the G20.

If he attends, Morrison will be armed with a heap of policy on technology and how it will cut emissions. But he still mightn’t have that hard and fast 2050 target in his kit bag.

Correction: This article has been edited to remove an incorrect reference to Tony Abbott and include a response (below) from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Response from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd: Michelle Grattan’s suggestion that Morrison could try to avoid embarrassment by staying away from this year’s Glasgow Climate Conference is astute. However, she is wrong to suggest that this wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Grattan claims Tony Abbott deliberately spurned the 2015 Paris Conference, and that my personal attendance at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 “played badly”. This is wrong on two counts.

First, Abbott didn’t attend the Paris Conference in 2015 because he wasn’t prime minister at the time. Malcolm Turnbull, who was in office, did attend. If Morrison hides under the doona this November, it will cement his reputation as both a climate pariah and a political coward.

Second, Grattan’s suggestion that my attendance at Copenhagen “played badly” is reductive and focuses only on the heat and light of public parliamentary debate. Copenhagen is often remembered for what it didn’t deliver, but the fact remains that Australia’s leadership laid the groundwork for what would become the Paris Conference six years later.

The Copenhagen Accord was the first time we committed to a global target of keeping temperature increases this century below 2 degrees Celsius. It was also the first time that both developed and developing countries agreed to act to reduce greenhouse gases. Prior to that it was only developed economies, thus leaving China off the hook. Also born at Copenhagen was the concept of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions on greenhouse gas reductions – as climate targets set individually from the bottom up, rather than the top down – and an Australian idea.

All three of these were the product of active negotiations in the room by a limited number of heads of government. It wouldn’t have happened with just bureaucrats, because they were not empowered to make decisions. That’s why I went. And I knew it was a political risk worth taking. If these decisions were not taken at Copenghagen, Paris would not have been possible. End of story.

Even in political terms, I doubt my attendance at Copenhagen was a political drag. The conference took place within a few days of Malcolm Turnbull’s ouster and the rise of Tony Abbott, who then teamed up with the Greens to thwart our carbon pollution reduction scheme. Against that background noise, it is impossible to isolate and attribute movement in the polls to any one thing.

In any case, let’s imagine the counterfactual; how badly do you think it would have played for the Prime Minister to hide out in Australia when the world’s leaders were gathering in Copenhagen to set the course for the global economy?

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