Storm brewing over Abbott's stance on climate change

He faces domestic, global pressure to do more to cut carbon emissions

DURING a cosy radio interview with an influential right-wing pundit last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to reveal his true attitudes to climate change. 

Long regarded as something of a climate change sceptic, Mr Abbott said he was proud that he had reduced Australia's renewable energy targets by about 20 per cent, and would have liked to cut them further. 

He also expressed his personal view that wind farms are "visually awful" and have harmful noise levels, even though the government's own panel of experts found there was no consistent evidence of harmful effects.

The off-the-cuff comments to outspoken radio host Alan Jones were consistent with Mr Abbott's long-held resistance to action on climate change and his decision to scrap Australia's tax on carbon emissions.

But Mr Abbott's position appears to be increasingly at odds with the world's. 

Analysts say he has scaled back Australia's climate commitments just as other major economies agree to deep emission cuts ahead of international climate talks in Paris this year. 

An expert on global environmental politics, Dr Matt McDonald from the University of Queensland, said Mr Abbott has been left increasingly isolated. He said Australia was one of the world's biggest carbon emitters per person but has adopted only a "comparatively small"  target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020.

"With optimism slowly building that the Paris summit in December will avoid the same problems as Copenhagen in 2009, international pressure threatens to isolate the Australian government," he wrote on The Conversation website on Wednesday.

Adding to the pressure,  G-7 nations earlier this month committed to phasing out fossil fuel emissions by the end of the century. The group also backed emission cuts at "the upper end" of the 40 per cent to 70 per cent range from 2010 levels by 2050.

Significantly, Canada, which like Australia is a big fossil fuel exporter, backed the declaration.

Mr Abbott has long made clear that he wants to resist drastic action on global warming or any response that would involve substantial changes to the economy.

But he has been forced to develop a policy for reducing emissions. It is not only the scientific and international communities that pressured him, but also domestic public opinion.

A survey released by the Lowy Institute this week found 50 per cent of Australians believe global warming is a serious problem and should be addressed now even if it involves "significant costs"; 38 per cent support gradual action and 12 per cent support waiting.

Mr Abbott adopted a plan for cutting emissions after the 2013 elections, but it has come under fierce criticism. Its centrepiece is a A$2.55  billion (S$2.65 billion) "direct action" scheme to pay polluters to cut emissions. But analysts say the first set of payments in April - worth A$660 million - largely involved projects that were already under way. And the policy includes no mandatory limits on emissions by polluters, so that any cuts could be exceeded by increases.

Professor David Schlosberg, an environmental politics expert at Sydney University, said  "the vast majority" of analysts believe that Mr Abbott's policies will not succeed in meeting Australia's targets. "What is truly amazing ... is that this self-described conservative government is not only eschewing the suggestions of experts and the opposition, but is also acting against every one of these basic market-friendly policies," he wrote on the Sydney Environment Institute website in April. "We've seen a removal of the price on carbon. Instead, we will have millions given to companies who promise to cut emissions, but with no guarantee or consequences if they don't."

Others such as Australian energy market analysis firm RepuTex believe Canberra will meet its 2020 targets only because successive governments have overstated the amount of cuts needed to fulfil their commitments.

Mr Abbott is yet to announce his  post-2020 emission targets - which all countries are announcing before the Paris conference. He has said he will commit to cuts "without a carbon tax and without destroying jobs". 

His policies have been criticised by everyone from former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to progressives in his own party. 

A staunch Catholic, Mr Abbott now finds himself even further isolated following dramatic calls by the Pope for wealthy nations to address climate change.

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Storm brewing over Abbott's stance on climate change'. Print Edition | Subscribe