With the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow just weeks away, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is yet to confirm his attendance, amid mounting pressure for him to declare a net zero emissions target.

Morrison has indicated that he may miss the crucial climate summit in Scotland, with the country’s strict Covid-19 restrictions requiring even the Prime Minister to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival from overseas travel.

"It's another trip overseas... and I've spent a lot of time in quarantine," he told the West Australian newspaper last month.

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A trip to COP26 would mark the PM’s fourth trip in 2021, meaning he would have spent a total of 56 days in quarantine by the end of the year, if he makes the journey to Scotland.

However, pressure is mounting both at home and abroad to attend the climate summit, with Australia the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second largest exporter of coal, but lacking a net zero emissions target.

The Prime Minister is also under pressure to strengthen Australia’s 2030 emissions targets, with the country currently targeting up to a 28% cut from 2005 levels, which the nation appears on course to easily reach.

Negotiations over climate policy

Morrison is expected to make a climate address this month, regardless if he makes it to COP26 or not, but negotiations are still ongoing on how that policy will look.

A number of members of the National Party — which forms part of the coalition government — are strongly opposed to the government setting any kind of zero emissions targets.

Central to their concerns is the impact they claim ambitious climate targets could have on Australia's regions and industries, namely the resource and agriculture sectors.

However, local media reports indicate the National Party could back a net zero goal, in exchange for multi billion-dollar green investments for the regions and legislation halting climate action if rural communities suffer economically.

The Australian press reported over the weekend that Nationals' Senate leader Brid­get McKenzie was planning to start the week by outlining proposals stating that zero emissions commitments must be ­accompanied by new laws allowing the nation to hit the “pause button” if climate targets negatively impact regional Australia.

“We want that net zero economic impact guaranteed. One mechanism to help future-proof regional jobs in a Glasgow pledge is the insertion of caveats that protect the regions,” she wrote in The Australian over the weekend.

“This would allow Australia to say to the world, we would make our contribution but if it negatively impacts on our ­regional communities, we have the right as a sovereign nation to hit the pause button.”

Business Council in net zero backflip

Adding to pressure for the government to back a net zero emissions target, was the announcement over the weekend from the Business Council of Australia backing such a target, after previously being opposed to a mandated net zero goal.

The Business Council now claims in a new report Australia can get to net zero emissions by 2050, while reaping an economic dividend of A$890 billion (US$651.2 billion) and 195,000 jobs by 2070.

Business Council president Tim Reed stated that Australia’s biggest trading partners were already making the transition towards net zero emissions, as are individual Australian businesses.

“By using the existing policy building blocks, we’re presenting an ambitious but achievable plan to manage the economic and technology transition, reducing emissions and leaving Australians better off,” he said.

“By creating an independent body to advise on 10-year emissions budgets, coordination action across government, business and regulators and locking in a robust offsets market to manage hard to abate sectors, Australia can afford to be more ambitious.”

Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott also called on the government to set a more ambitious 2030 target.

“We believe Australia can achieve a more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of between 46 to 50 per cent below 2005 levels,” she said.

“Setting a more ambitious interim target now will drive new investment and bring forward action in sectors such as electricity where we can deploy commercially viable technology at scale."

Westacott added: "Of course, not all sectors will be in a position to decarbonise at the same pace, and our plan allows for this accelerating early action in sectors where commercially viable technology exists today.”

Her words mark a switch from the Business Council, which was previously opposed to increasing Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, going as far as to say a 45% target would be “economy wrecking”.