Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s energy policy seems to stick to one iron-clad mantra: Whatever the United Nations advises, do the exact opposite. While this might seem like a flight of fancy chosen to make this article’s lede a little sexier, evidence is piling up.
Last May, ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit, the World Bank teamed up with a number of countries and corporations to move the needle on carbon pricing. No longer did this group think it necessary to argue over whether carbon pricing was necessary, instead, it sought to establish a fair price for carbon. Rachel Kyte, Vice President of the World Bank Group and its special envoy for climate change issued this call to arms, saying that “a carbon price provides a necessary signal for investment in low-carbon and resilient growth…it should be part of any package of policies to scale up mitigation.” Its initiative was a runaway success as 73 countries and over 1,000 companies signed up, including British Airways, Unilever and IKEA.
Tony Abbott met this united show of strength by attempting to cobble together one of his own. Calling carbon pricing evidence of a left-leaning agenda seeking more taxes and an unwarranted reaction to unproven man-made climate change, Abbott announced that he was reaching out to the center-right governments of Canada, the UK, India and New Zealand to fight back. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, backed Abbott but there has been little further news of this anti-carbon tax alliance. With the next G20 Summit happening in Australia in November, U.S. President Barack Obama has pressured Abbott to include climate change on that summit’s agenda but so far, this seems to have been ruled out.
The next tidbit of evidence of Abbott’s reactionary energy policy came in the summer. In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made a personal address to global leaders. In this address, he praised the efforts that had already been made by countries and companies alike to mitigate climate change. He went on to ask that far more investment be made into meeting climate change, renewable energy and sustainability targets, “I count on all actors here today to deliver new and expanded commitments and partnerships that will transform the global energy landscape.”
In August, Abbott made a move that surprised even some of his sternest critics. The country’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) had long been a thorn in his side, but the debate had centered mostly on scaling it back. Even Abbott’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt only talked of reducing the RET´s scope. This was why Abbott’s decision to ask the RET review board to explore its complete termination was such a shock. The unified reaction of the energy industry was one of horror. Major oil and gas companies as well as power utilities were joint in decrying the move, calling for the RET to be preserved in a modified form, saying its scrapping could cost Australia AU$11 billion in lost investment. GE Australia even said its cancellation would “make a mockery of the government’s open for business mantra.”
To date, the RET has survived, with Abbott likely balking at the negative response his proposal received. Opposition leader Bill Shorten renewed his vow to save the RET this week, but it is likely that Abbott’s confidence in his anti-climate change crusade will see the axe swing at the RET sooner rather than later.
Finally, the most glaring evidence of Abbott’s modus operandi came over the last month. Just before the UN Climate Change Summit in New York in September, a conference Abbott did not attend, the UN declared coal had no future in the world’s energy mix. The global body even told coal companies that the world’s remaining coal reserves “should be left in the ground.” This put the UN on a collision course with the Australian government which already declared that coal would be an “affordable, dependable energy source for decades to come.”
The reaction from Abbott came this week when he opened a major new coal mine in Queensland. Inaugurating the Caval Ridge coal mine which will create 2,500 direct and indirect jobs, the Australian Prime Minister could not have been more effusive about coal as an energy source. Not content to say that coal created jobs, was still a primary energy source or that it was an economic mainstay, Abbott went one step further. “Coal is good for humanity,” he declared. “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal.”
Asking people not to demonise coal might be a tough sell when it causes an estimated 115,000 premature deaths, is the leading cause of lung cancer in China, and remains the main source of air pollution in the United States. The U.S. government, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have all stopped funding coal projects but it remains a rapidly growing source, with some estimates saying the use of coal worldwide will rise by 33% by 2040.
Developing countries needing to rely on coal for the foreseeable future is one thing, especially if their long-term strategy is to increase their share of renewables, but to have the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries saying that coal is good for humanity is quite another. Abbott is not just causing Australia to lose out on potential billions in investment, he is making ludicrous statements that risk becoming a rallying cry for like-minded politicians. But as long as he can keep defying the UN and creating 2,000 jobs in Queensland, Abbott is unlikely to waste much time on a pesky thing like scientific fact.
By Chris Dalby of OilPrice.com
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