Barnaby Joyce has refused to commit the government to maintain the Renewable Energy Target, after a report that conservative Coalition MPs want to ditch it if the United States pulls out of the Paris climate agreement.
The deputy prime minister ruled out pulling out of the Paris agreement, but criticised “romantic” renewable targets set by states and said MPs were free to think and say what they like about the RET.
Australia’s self-imposed target is to achieve 33,000 gigawatt hours of energy from renewable energy by 2020, a target of about 23%. The Abbott government cut the target from 41,000 gigawatt hours in 2015, but the principle of the RET still enjoyed bipartisan support.
On Monday the Australian quoted several unnamed conservative MPs who want to ditch the RET, arguing it would help sharpen the Coalition’s attack on Labor’s plan to lift renewable energy to 50%.
Tony Abbott and the South Australian senator Cory Bernardi have both publicly argued for the scrapping of renewable energy targets.
On Monday Joyce was asked on ABC’s AM if he supported dumping the RET and Australia’s Paris greenhouse gas reduction targets, given the US may withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
“We have an agreement, we’ve signed [it] and we’re honouring that agreement.
“We’re ahead of where we need to be … We’re doing it in a vastly cheaper way than what the Labor party has proposed, with its carbon tax and emissions trading scheme.”
Asked what Australia would do if the US withdrew, Joyce said it was a matter for the US.
On the report his colleagues were speaking out against the RET, Joyce said: “People have the benefit of free will, they can think what they wish. And on the backbench they can say what they wish.”
Asked if the government would retain the RET, Joyce said only “we don’t sign agreements to pull out of them”, in another apparent reference to the Paris agreement not the RET.
Australia’s Paris commitment is to reduce emissions to 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, but does not specify how emissions reductions must be achieved. The RET is contained in federal legislation and is not mandated by the Paris agreement.
Joyce said Australia’s needed commitments to be achievable and would “not put undue pressure on our power prices and deliver affordable electricity to the Australian household”.
“That’s why we have an issue with states who go it alone on [renewable energy] targets that are way beyond the capacity for even them to provide, and South Australia is a classic example.”
He said South Australia’s targets were “romantic” and as a result the state “couldn’t get the lights on”.
Despite government claims Australia is on track to meet its Paris commitments, Australia’s emissions are rising and projected to keep doing so to 2030, meaning the country will fail to meet its 2030 targets.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told Triple M in Melbourne on Monday that Australian industry, such as the Alcoa aluminium smelter in Portland, needed open markets and affordable electricity.
He said Labor and Bill Shorten were “enemies” of both those aims. “They are threats to both trade and … affordable electricity with their utterly unrealistic renewable targets that they have no way of achieving in any affordable way.”
The Liberal MP, Julian Leeser, told Sky News: “We’re committed today to the 23% renewable energy target – that is the energy target that we have.”
But Leeser suggested the government’s position on the RET may change after the Finkel review of Australia’s energy mix.
“I am for evidence based policy … In the event evidence is presented that we should reduce that target, well then we should look at reducing or increasing the target as the case may be, but I support the 23% target.”