Coalition candidate says net zero by 2050 is a ‘flexible plan that leaves us wiggle room’

Scott Morrison has told the United Nations Australia will reach net zero emissions by 2050 – but according to the Coalition’s candidate in Flynn, this commitment is a flexible, non-binding plan that leaves plenty of “wiggle room”.

Colin Boyce, who has previously been on the record opposing the government’s net zero target, even though it is National party policy, on Monday suggested the government’s net zero plan may not happen because of the uncertain geopolitical climate.

“Zero net carbon emissions by 2050, Morrison’s document, is a flexible plan that leaves us wiggle room as we proceed into the future,” Boyce told the ABC. “We’ve seen the world change significantly in the last three months in terms of the use of fossil fuels, all in relation to the geopolitical situation in Europe”.

Boyce also noted Morrison’s net zero “statement” last year was “not binding, there will be no legislation attached to it”. The LNP’s Flynn candidate said it had been made clear on page 81 of the government’s transition plan that the future of gas and coal would ultimately be determined by international demand.

In Australia’s nationally determined contribution submitted to the United Nations last October, the Morrison government says: “Australia adopts a target of net zero emissions by 2050. This is an economy-wide target, covering all sectors and gases included in Australia’s national inventory”.

As well as pledging the mid-century commitment, Morrison also used his national statement at the Cop26 in Glasgow last year to emphasise that Australia will probably overachieve on its 2030 emissions reduction target. The commitments were offered in an effort to blunt international criticism about his government’s lack of climate ambition.

The Coalition currently holds the seat of Flynn on a margin of 8.7%. Labor is targeting the seat because the incumbent, Ken O’Dowd, is retiring from politics at this election. Boyce, a former state parliamentarian, is the LNP candidate.

While Boyce is distancing himself from the government’s policy in central Queensland, Liberals under pressure from the so-called “teal” independents in metropolitan contests have foregrounded the Morrison’s government’s commitment to net zero by 2050 as evidence the Coalition has a credible plan for the transition to low emissions energy.

Those Liberals are under pressure from independents who contend moderate Liberals can’t deliver serious climate action because, at the end of the day, they vote in the same way as Barnaby Joyce and the National party.

Boyce on Monday declared coal was “absolutely critical to central Queensland and the Flynn electorate and particularly to the greater Gladstone region”.

Boyce said if he was elected on 21 May, his number one priority would be ensuring the inland rail was extended to Gladstone “and see the port developed as an entry and exit point” for fossil fuel exports. Environmentalists have warned extending the inland rail from Toowoomba to Gladstone will unlock a “carbon bomb”.

The extension of the line from Toowoomba to Gladstone is aimed at unlocking coalmines in the Surat Basin. According to a pre-feasibility study commissioned by the government into the Gladstone rail link in 2020, there were “significant costs and marginal economic returns” from the extension.

Boyce said locals had raised concerns about the net zero commitment because people wanted economic security. He said fossil fuels were critical for Australia’s standard of living because whether people liked it or not “that’s what pays the bills”.

Boyce also cast doubt over whether alternatives like green hydrogen would displace carbon-intensive fuels anytime soon, because he said there were “big issues” including whether or not there was a sufficient supply of fresh water for hydrogen production and the mass deployment of renewables.

Labor’s candidate in the seat is Matt Burnett, a former mayor of Gladstone. Burnett told the ABC on Monday he was a supporter of the coal industry “and new industries as well”. He said hydrogen presented new economic opportunities for central Queensland with “real jobs making things in Australia again”.

While Boyce is focussing on wealth generation from fossil fuels, a report last year by Beyond Zero Emissions found that establishing a renewable energy industrial precinct in Gladstone would generate new capital investment of $7.8bn for the region, generate an additional $2bn in revenue each year, create 11,000 new ongoing local jobs in new manufacturing and service industries and protect existing manufacturing jobs.

That report says Gladstone could become a major green hydrogen hub to maintain its industrial heritage during the transition. Modelling for that report was undertaken by ACIL Allen.

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