In December, Australia took over leadership of the G20. In normal times, this would’ve been welcome news for the global community deeply concerned with the impacts of climate change. But these are not normal times in Australia, politically or environmentally. Before Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister of Australia last September, the country was known for passing a national carbon tax, striving for ambitious greenhouse gas reductions targets, investing heavily in renewable energy, and valuing the input of leading climate scientists. Since then, however, Abbott and his Liberal Party coalition in power have rolled back any initiative on climate and environment as much as possible, and pivoted to a focus on growing the economy through doubling-down on Australia’s powerful fossil fuel industry.
Abbott has not been hesitant to push his agenda globally either, if he thinks it will benefit him at home. In October, he engaged U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres in a debate over the link between climate change and bushfires in Australia, saying that Figueres was “talking through her hat” in regards to climate change’s role in the fires. Then in the lead up to the G20 meeting in Sydney in February, Abbott said he didn’t want to “clutter up the G20 agenda with every worthy and important cause, because if we do, we will squander the opportunity to make a difference in the vital area of economic growth.”
His remarks, made at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, were clearly targeted at those who want climate change to play a leading role on the G20 agenda, including Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who told Australian television that the issue of climate change “must be dealt with.”
On Wednesday, Lord Nicholas Stern, professor of Economics and Government at London School of Economics and president of the British Academy, weighed in on the subject with an op-ed in Australia’s The Age newspaper.
“How Australia tackles the threat of climate change is of global importance as developing countries look to rich countries to set an example because of their better technologies and history of high emissions of greenhouse gases,” he wrote. “The international community is now gearing up for new agreement on climate change to be signed in Paris in 2015, after all countries, including Australia, agreed in 2010 that global emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut sharply by 2050 in order to avoid the huge risks that would be associated with a rise in global average temperature of more than 2 C.”
The U.S. has also been highly critical of Abbott’s neglect to include climate change on the G20 agenda. President Obama’s G20 emissary, Caroline Atkinson, recently said that within the G20 there is a growing understanding of the importance of addressing climate and energy issues and that these issues also impact Australia’s economic growth priorities. Then this week, Heather Zichal, who up until recently was President Obama’s lead climate and energy adviser, said “Ignoring one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced is simply not an option … sitting out climate change negotiations is not in Australia’s or any other nations’ interest. It is a huge mistake.”
Zichal suggests that focusing on economic productivity could be the sweet spot that Australia could use to balance climate concerns and economic growth goals. Reducing pollution and emissions from power plants and imposing strong energy efficiency measures on transport and infrastructure can boost energy productivity, save money, create jobs, and reduce emissions. “Ultimately, across all economic sectors, energy productivity is the most reliable, cleanest, and cheapest resource,” Zichal said.
The G20 has acknowledged this, and in 2009, years before Abbott took the reins, the group pledged to abolish inefficient fossil fuel subsidies over the medium term because they “encourage wasteful consumption, distort markets, impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to deal with climate change.”
“Access to diverse, reliable, affordable and clean energy is critical for sustainable growth,” the statement reads. “Increasing clean and renewable energy supplies, improving energy efficiency, and promoting conservation are critical steps to protect our environment, promote sustainable growth and address the threat of climate change. Accelerated adoption of economically sound clean and renewable energy technology and energy efficiency measures diversifies our energy supplies and strengthens our energy security.”
The recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that soaring greenhouse gas emissions amplify risks of food insecurity, mass migration, and violent conflict — as well as potentially costing trillions of dollars in environmental damage. Australia is no stranger to this, having gone through record-breaking droughts and heatwaves in the last decade, and having many native flora and fauna already in danger — the signs are hard to ignore, even from an ivory tower like Tony Abbott’s. But things are even more dire in other areas of the world, like the nearby Pacific Islands.
The foreign minister of Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, recently said he’s extremely disappointed by Australia’s approach to climate change. “They must set the tone for commitment, for progressive movement on climate change and not backpedal on commitments already made,” he said. “We’ve heard that in the upcoming G20 summit, Australia is going to leave climate change off the agenda because it did not want it cluttered with climate change issues — this is appalling.”