Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Green Dreams Stymied as Turnbull Backs Abbott Climate Policy

  • Turnbull would face party opposition to tougher climate action
  • Ousted leader Abbott had said coal was 'good for humanity'

Anyone hoping that Australia will do more to fight climate change after Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott to become prime minister may be disappointed.

After beating Abbott in a late-night ballot of Liberal Party lawmakers, Turnbull described the nation’s current climate policy as “a very, very good piece of work.” It includes a voluntary program for cutting emissions, and a pollution reduction target announced last month that fell short of commitments by the U.S. and European Union.

Turnbull replaces a prime minister who last year said coal “is good for humanity,” ditched the nation’s first-ever carbon pricing mechanism and criticized wind farms. While he’s broadly regarded as being more climate-friendly than Abbott, Turnbull will be wary of changing government policy due to opposition within his own party ranks. His support for an emissions trading scheme cost him his job as opposition leader in 2009.

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's new prime minister.
Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's new prime minister.
Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

“It’s naive to think tomorrow he’s going to announce an emissions trading scheme,” Martijn Wilder, head of global environmental markets at law firm Baker & McKenzie, said by phone. “Turnbull has made it clear he’s a consultative leader, and given there has been a significant amount of work done by this government on its policy, we would expect there would need to be an internal process if they were going to shift their position.”

Shift in Thinking

As opposition leader in December 2009, Turnbull said: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.” He was dumped in a party ballot, losing to Abbott by one vote.

A shift in his thinking was evident late last year, when he said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television interview that “emissions trading schemes have worked better in theory than in practice.”

“As prime minister he will have a big job to convince his colleagues that public opinion in this area should be listened to,” said Tim Flannery, a professor at the independent advisory Climate Council who has criticized government policy on combating global warming. “The government will be out of sync with public opinion on some of these issues for some time to come.”

‘Economically Responsible’

Abbott’s government last month pledged to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2030. “We’ve got to be environmentally responsible, but we’ve got to be economically responsible too,” Abbott said at the time.

While Australia’s target is more ambitious than the goals set by Canada, Japan and South Korea when assessed against a common 2010 baseline, the country is lagging the U.S. and the European Union, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The centerpiece of Abbott’s environmental policy is a A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund to encourage companies to cut greenhouse gases through taxpayer-funded grants. The government held its first carbon auction in April, making payments for voluntary cuts to emissions.

Ugly, Noisy

Turnbull, speaking in parliament on Tuesday, called the auction earlier this year “a resounding success” and defended the climate change plan that Environment Minister Greg Hunt helped introduce.

“The government policy on climate is right, and it is being proved right,” Turnbull said. “The targets we have set are reasonable ones. They are comparable ones. They are substantial ones, and the methods the environment minister has put in place to achieve those cuts are working.”

Abbott, who has called wind farms ugly and noisy, also scaled back the nation’s 2020 renewable energy target. Legislation passed in June ended months of uncertainty that had paralyzed investment in the industry.

With Turnbull taking over, the clean energy industry is hopeful Australia will set more aggressive goals to cut emissions and reduce the nation’s reliance on coal. In the short term, it’s not expecting significant change.

“I’m a realist, and changing policy is not something the new leader is going to do overnight,” said Nathan Dunn, managing director for Asia Pacific at Enphase Energy Inc., a solar technology company based in California. “But my opinion is that Turnbull is not a climate skeptic and has a deep understanding of climate change and the challenges that Australia faces.”

Turnbull’s stance on Monday, sticking to the current program, was attacked by Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten.

“Turnbull has sold out all the things he said were important to him,” Shorten said in a speech in Canberra. “Whatever happened to climate change, Malcolm?”

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