Australia likened to Saudi Arabia in plea to quit coal habit

UN climate chief urges Canberra to follow Gulf example on renewables as policymakers slash clean energy ambition

A coal loader at Kooragang Island, New South Wales. Australia is the world's second coal exporter. (Flickr/ Eye weed)

A coal loader at Kooragang Island, New South Wales. Australia is the world’s second biggest coal exporter. (Flickr/ Eye weed)

By Alex Pashley

Australia isn’t often compared to a petro-state.

But that was the parallel drawn by the UN’s top official Christiana Figueres on Wednesday as she spoke of it and the Gulf economies’ need to break with fossil fuels to tackle global warming.

In a reference to the oceanic country’s coal dependence, Figueres mentioned Saudi Arabia and its move to develop clean energy.

“If the Saudis can do that, everyone else can,” she said.

Figueres has reason to be vocal. Australia is bringing up the rear on climate action.

Last year prime minister Tony Abbott ditched the country’s independent Climate Commission and carbon tax.

Now, its main remaining climate policy tool the Emissions Reduction Fund could run out of cash next year, while lawmakers are slashing a renewables target.

That slims its chances of lowering carbon emissions by the targeted 5% from 2000 levels by 2020.

It should lower emissions by more like 30% by 2025 from 2000 levels to mirror ambition by the US, according to the Climate Institute. The Climate Action Tracker classes its policies as “inadequate”.

As Australia delays in submitting its “intended nationally determined contribution” to a global pact, Figueres used her visit to call for leadership in negotiations and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It’s responsible for 1.5% of the world total.


About 87% of the country’s electricity generation came from fossil fuels, chiefly coal, in 2013.

Possessing the world’s fourth largest reserves, Australia needs to keep 90% of that in the ground according to a report by the Climate Council, to avoid a 2C temperature rise agreed by scientists and nations as the maximum level to prevent drastic climate change.

News: Australia lags behind US on emissions cuts

Comments by Abbott’s top advisor that global warming was a hoax concocted by the UN to build a new world order overshadowed the visit.

“It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective,” Maurice Newman, chair of Abbott’s business advisory council wrote in an op-ed in the Australian newspaper.

The country’s carbon market was at “risk of collapse” with funding set to dry up next year, said analysts RepuTex.

The AU$2.6 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, which awards government cash for energy efficiency projects, received a surge in demand at its first auction in April for contracts.

“We forecast that this will result in the ERF budget being fully committed next year – from which there will be no mechanism in place to cut Australian greenhouse gas emissions,” said Hugh Grossman, executive director at RepuTex.

“Unless the government commits additional funding, or establishes a new buyer for Australian carbon credits, the domestic carbon market will grind to a halt in 2016.”

News: Australia ‘risks climate credibility’ with coal-friendly target

And in another blow to its carbon cutting ambitions, lawmakers moreover reached an “in principle” deal on Friday to revise down a 2020 renewable power goal.

The Renewable Energy Target will fall from the 41,000 gigawatt hours approved in 2009 to 33,000 GWh — though more than the 25,500 GWh put forward last year by a government-commissioned panel led by self-declared climate sceptic Dick Warburton.

One-fifth of the country’s electricity must come from renewables. The figure stands at 14% currently.

“The cut is the end of large scale solar in Australia,” said Greens leader Richard Di Natale  in a statement. Australia’s Solar Council said a reduction in promised review times from four to two years would cause “chaos and uncertainty”.

Jennifer Morgan at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC said Australia’s commitment to coal made it “out of step with the world”.

“You look at the trend of what the Church of England is doing, the whole conversation in China is how to shift away from coal, it’s a similar debate in the US, so I think Australia is quite unique its seemingly continued focus [on coal] for the future.”

But in an unexpected backlash, the University of Western Australia decided to revoke a planned research institute headed by climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg.

Vice chancellor Paul Johnson said it “lacked the support needed across the University and broader academic community” to go ahead with the $4 million policy centre.

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