Australia PM Turnbull stands by coal amid moratorium calls

Recently annointed prime minister is defending mine expansion plans, to the ire of Pacific neighbours and climate campaigners

Malcolm Turnbull seized Australia's leadership last month, but is not changing climate policy (Flickr/Veni)

Malcolm Turnbull seized Australia’s leadership last month, but is not changing climate policy (Flickr/Veni)

By Megan Darby

When Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott as prime minister last month, climate watchers were hopeful he would reverse Australia’s coal-friendly stance.

There was some sign of that this week, as newly appointed chief science advisor Alan Finkel envisioned a world free of fossil fuels. Yet it has been business as usual for the country’s bullish mine expansion plans, which threaten international climate goals.

That is despite 61 prominent Australians, from rugby player David Pocock to Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, backing Pacific islanders’ calls for a moratorium.

Dismissing the idea, Turnbull told national journalists: “Coal is a very important part, a very large part, the largest single part in fact, of the global energy mix… and likely to remain that way for a very long time.”

He variously argued that coal-fired power would reduce poverty in developing countries and that if Australia stopped exporting the black stuff, others would.

“It would make not the blindest bit of difference to global emissions,” the Guardian reported him saying.

Report: Australia PM Tony Abbott ousted by Malcolm Turnbull
Analysis: Why coal miners need a moratorium (but can’t ask)

Abbott saw mining expansion as a pillar of his economic plan, dismissing climate concerns. In contrast, Turnbull has previously made a case for climate action, notably advocating the carbon tax that Abbott scrapped. To pull off last month’s dramatic coup, however, he appears to have reassured his party lawmakers there would be no shift in policy.

Larissa Waters, Australian Green senator, accused Turnbull of sidestepping the tough questions ahead of this December’s Paris summit to agree a global climate deal.

“The prime minister is using rhetoric to juggle the wishes of the climate dinosaurs in his party against the overwhelming community support for climate action,” she said.

“But he can’t have it both ways – Australians want action on climate change and that means walking the walk, including by increasing our targets for Paris in line with science.”

Report: Pacific islanders blast Australian minister over rising seas jibe

The continuing support for coal is intensifying friction with Pacific island neighbours that stand to lose their homes as global warming triggers sea level rise. They called for an international ban on new coal mines in last month’s Suva Declaration.

Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji, this week pleaded with Turnbull to take on climate deniers in his government, in a speech covered by the Guardian.

Coal is “the dirtiest of energy sources,” he said. “And there is no place for it in a world that desperately needs cleaner energy to halt the present rate of global warming.”

At issue are vast opencast mines planned for Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Just one of these, Carmichael, has a footprint bigger than Paris. Greenpeace estimates that when burned, fuel from this mine alone will emit more than the whole of Vietnam.

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They are deeply controversial within the state, where the related port infrastructure is set to turn the Great Barrier Reef into a coal shipping lane.

It was a key issue in state elections last January, with industry job promises clashing with fears for the sensitive coral environment and tourism it supports.

Labor narrowly won on a platform of avoiding state subsidy for the projects, which are struggling to raise private finance amid weak coal prices.

But it teamed up with the federal government to launch a mining technology research centre this week, as part of a AU$225 million innovation programme.

Greens criticised the handout to a “dying” industry. “What mining workers need from government is a transition plan, which invests in training for 21st century industries, like clean energy, where the jobs will last,” said Waters.

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