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The mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has advised Scott Morrison to proceed with committing Australia to a net zero emissions target before the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, even if that means splitting the federal Coalition.
Forrest has been personally lobbying Nationals as Morrison attempts to persuade the junior Coalition partner to accept new climate commitments ahead of the Glasgow climate conference.
Asked what Morrison should do in the event the Nationals refused to support the target – should the prime minister proceed with that commitment, even if that meant splitting the Coalition – Forrest told the National Press Club on Thursday: “My advice to our prime minister is to proceed” even if there are “holdouts in the National party”.
As well as the advice to crash through on the net zero target, Forrest also urged Morrison to provide clarity about the 2030 target. Guardian Australia understands Morrison has told colleagues that as well as securing a 2050 commitment, he wants to increase Australia’s existing 2030 emissions reduction target before Glasgow.
New emissions projections to be released shortly are expected to forecast Australia will beat the current target of a 26-28% cut by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.
But with some Nationals openly hostile to signing up to a mid-century net zero commitment, and others on the fence, it is unclear whether Morrison will have the political capital to be able to take the extra step and increase the 2030 target.
Forrest, who made his fortune in fossil fuels but is now championing green hydrogen, said if the government didn’t nominate a clear 2030 target, “all of us in business don’t know what to aim for”.
“It’s like having an Olympics without medals,” he said. “I mean, you can talk all you like, but unless you’re gonna aim to win the race, you’re probably not gonna win it.
“The worst thing we can have to make investment decisions and business decisions is uncertainty. Remove the uncertainty, nominate a target for 2030, and let Australia crack on and go for it.”
Forrest also argued countries needed to champion future fuels like green hydrogen – an energy source made with renewable energy – if they wanted to land the transition to net zero.
He said “clean” hydrogen, which is sometimes championed by the Morrison government, was a carbon-based product. Clean hydrogen, he said, was “a sound bite covering the fact it’s made from carbon-emitting fossil fuel – it has carbon all through its supply chain”.
Forrest likened “clean” coal and “clean” hydrogen to “cancer-free tobacco”.
“It all adds up to the same thing – misleading sound bites put out by industries wishing to continue a duplicitous social licence to operate,” Forrest said on Thursday.
“Australia has thousands of times, thousands of times more renewable energy than fossil fuel has reserves.
“So, let’s keep fossil fuel going but only as long as we need to, and let’s do everything we need to switch to a green future.”
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Forrest intends to go to the Cop26 conference in Glasgow. The billionaire said on Thursday he had spoken to the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, and frontbencher Bridget McKenzie over the last couple of days in an effort to persuade them to back the transition.
He said Joyce had told him during a private conversation this week he “might be a cynic about the capacity to fix global warming, but I’m a believer in economic opportunities presented by it”.
The Nationals are not yet on board with the 2050 commitment. Cabinet discussed a policy roadmap and Treasury modelling underpinning the plan on Wednesday. No decision was taken. The Nationals party room meets on Sunday to consider the options.
Forrest’s forceful public lobbying is annoying some in the Nationals.
Some Nationals are deeply resentful about being corralled into a positive decision on net zero by Morrison, by business voices that have opposed carbon pricing in the past but are now backing the transition, and by the positive “Mission Zero” campaign launched this week by News Corp – previously a trenchant media opponent of climate action.
Given internal sensitivities remain acute, and resolving new climate policy is always dangerous for Australian governments, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was cautious when asked for an update on the negotiations during a press conference on Thursday.
“We are going through internal discussions and conducting an internal process … I want to be respectful to that process and respectful to my colleagues,” the treasurer said.
“With respect to net zero and a low emissions future, what Australia chooses to do into the future will have a big impact on our economy in a positive way – that is what I am working towards.”
The Reserve Bank also warned on Thursday Australia faced an intensifying risk of global investors divesting bonds or equity if it does not join other nations in making a net zero emissions commitment for 2050.
The RBA deputy governor, Guy Debelle, told an investment conference that climate risk was raised in “most conversations I have with foreign investors – this is a marked change from a few years ago”.