Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has made a rare intervention in Australian politics, urging the Turnbull government not to grant a controversial coal project a near A$1 billion loan.
In a strongly worded letter to a government agency, Figueres warned approving the concessional loan to Indian billionaire Gautam Adani would seriously damage Australia’s international reputation and could affect progress on the Paris agreement.
The agency – the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, known as NAIF – is considering an application for a A$900 million (US$680m) loan to build a railway from the site of the proposed Adani Carmichael mine in rural Queensland to a port on the Great Barrier Reef.
Figueres’ plea follows similar calls from several Pacific leaders, and comes amid signs a concerted campaign is having some success in turning the Australian public against the proposal.
Estimates suggest the mine could produce 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide if fully developed – an average 77 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for 60 years. The plan is to export the coal to burn in Indian power plants.
Figueres’ letter cites research published in Nature that found 93% of coal in the Pacific region had to stay in the ground to give the globe a 50:50 chance of keeping warming below 2C.
“A decision by the NAIF and the Commonwealth government to financially support the Adani project would further damage Australia’s international reputation as a climate laggard committed to prolonging its high-polluting fossil-fuel-based economy into the 21st century,” she wrote.
Internationally, she said it went against a growing fossil fuel divestment movement, and a coal phase-out campaign led by Britain and Canada at UN climate talks in Bonn last week.
In the Pacific, it would be seen as “an indifferent and ill-considered move by a country willing to sell off the interests of some of the most vulnerable countries and communities in its backyard”.
Figueres, now leading the Mission 2020 climate campaign, said NAIF’s enabling legislation sets out why the loan should not go ahead.
It requires the agency to not act in a way likely to damage the Australian government’s reputation, and to adopt best practice corporate governance principles on environmental issues.
“Given my background and deep concern for planetary well-being, I cannot in all good conscience, remain silent on an issue that threatens to unpick the progress represented by the Paris Agreement,” she said.
The Adani proposal has been a central focus of the ongoing Queensland state election campaign, and the result on 25 November may decide its future.
Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk reversed her support for the NAIF loan during the campaign and now promises to block it if approved. She blamed her changed position on what she said was a private smear campaign against her domestic partner, who worked on the loan application. Observers believe polling finding a majority of Queenslanders oppose the loan may have been equally decisive.
Her opponent, the Liberal National Party’s Tim Nichols, wants the loan to go ahead. Pundits expect the election to be close.
Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo dismissed Figueres’ argument on Monday, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it was “curious” she would argue against burning Australia’s “more efficient” coal in Indian power plants rather than coal from elsewhere.
The A$16.5bn (US$12.5bn) Adani proposal has struggled to win financial backing. After being rejected by Australian banks, the company is in discussion with a Chinese state-owned financier.
Analyses have found the mine was unlikely to be viable, given existing Indian coal plants are running below capacity and the price of solar power is falling dramatically.
If it goes ahead, the Carmichael mine could open the way for up to eight more new coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Greenpeace has estimated the basin could generate emissions equivalent to the world’s seventh biggest fossil fuel burning country if fully developed.