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Paris, COP21: Turnbull ducks and weaves as world leaders lead

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PARIS: As 150 country leaders spoke in Paris on Monday, mostly reinforcing their commitment to a global agreement that aims to limit global warming to a maximum 2°C, Australia prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to duck and weave his way through the first day of talks.

The country leaders were invited to Paris to try to remove roadblocks and inspire others to act. Most – including the leaders of the US, China, Mexico,  host France and other EU countries, developing nations, and even Russia – did exactly that.

But the day started badly for Australia with the revelation that it had snubbed – apparently, at the last minute and under pressure from the conservative rump of the Coalition government – an invitation to join a 40-country campaign to remove fossil fuel subsidies.

Australia was also conspicuously absent when many of the world’s major economies held a special event to underline their support for a carbon price. Australia, of course, was the first country in the world to remove a carbon price when Tony Abbott was in power.

Australia announced it was adding $1 billion into climate financing fund over five years, but again appeared to be pulling much of this money from the foreign aid budget.

It also pledged an extra $100 million for clean technology research, at the same time as refusing to remove legislation that would dismantle the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corp and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, from which it has stripped twice as much research funding.

All this came as Turnbull declared that Australia “was not daunted” by the challenge of capping global warming below 2°C, in a speech that included his decision to do a “Kevin Rudd” and overturn his predecessor’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and announce the ratification of the 2nd period of the soon-to-be defunct treaty.

That decision was branded as symbolic, yet it is largely in self interest as it will formalise his government’s ability to drawn down on surplus credit and give it, and some businesses, access to some cheap international permits. It is mostly a book keeping exercise.

It is Turnbull’s position on fossil fuel subsidies, his support for coal, his torpedoing of a carbon pricing mechanism, and his meek support for other measures, that reveal a continuing disconnect between talk and action.

Fossil fuel subsidies? What fossil fuel subsidies?

Canada and Australia were deemed to be the two big reformers on climate change since the recent dumping of their arch-conservative and climate sceptic leaders, Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, in favour of Justin Trudeau and Turnbull.

But while Trudeau gave a commitment that Canada would do an about face and sign up to the 40-country push to remove fossil fuel subsidies, apparently it was all too much for Turnbull, who was unwilling to face down opposition from the conservative forces in his party room.

New Zealand prime minister John Key, who is leading the push, along with the US and other nations, said fossil fuel subsidy reform is the “missing piece of the climate change puzzle.” This has been recognised by the OECD, and the G20, of which Australia is a member.

Key noted that than one-third of global carbon emissions, between 1980 and 2010, were driven by fossil fuel subsidies, which total more than half a trillion a year by some estimates, or up to $5.3 trillion – or $10 million a minute – if including environmental costs; and Key said their elimination could provide 15 per cent of the effort to meet the 2°C target.

“As with any subsidy reform, change will take courage and strong political will,” Key said.

But apparently this does not apply to Turnbull. Key told RenewEconomy at the launch event that his Australian counterpart withdrew support because he “didn’t like the wording.”

Indeed, Australia struggles to admit that it provides any fossil fuel subsidy at all, a view that Turnbull repeated later in the day. Australia insists, for instance, that the fuel tax credit, which costs the budget $5.5 billion a year, is not a subsidy. He described the IMF’s estimates as gratuitous. “We don’t have any in Australia as it happens,” Turnbull insisted.

But the fuel tax credit is not the only subsidy in Australia. The Queensland and Western Australia governments both heavily subsidise consumers on their respective fossil fuel electricity grids, both to the tune of between $500 million and $600 million a year.

There are more subsidies in cheap supplies to some generators, and a report last year noted a concessional rate of excise on aviation fuel ($5.5 billion), accelerated depreciation rules ($1.5 billion), and NGOs say the removal of the carbon price amounts to a subsidy to fossil fuels of $14 to $39 billion a year.

turnbull trudeuMalcolm Turnbull proves he is no Justin Trudeau

Removing fossil fuel subsidies is just one key policy measure to try to reduce emissions. The other major plank is carbon pricing, and at the leaders’ summit the world’s major economies got together to underline their support for such a mechanism.

On carbon pricing, Malcolm Turnbull again showed he was no Justin Trudeau. The Canadian chief appeared with Francois Hollande (whose country has a $34 carbon price on its electricity sector, rising to $150 by 2030), Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the heads of Mexico, Chile, and the World Bank.

Trudeau’s speech was striking because it delivered what many would have expected of Turnbull, but have so far been disappointed.

“We can’t just look at a carbon price as a liability. We have to look at it from the point of view as an opportunity for new technologies,” Trudeau said.

Consumers, he said,  are asking questions about the source of their goods, the mileage of their cars, etc. “These questions will be answered by putting a price on carbon.”

He conceded that in the last 10 years “Canada has been less enthusiastic than some” on the issues of sustainability and climate change, but at a sub national level provincial governments have taken the initiative. For example, British Colombia put a price on carbon, started low, everyone knew it would increase and had a chance to modify their conduct.

“We need to give price signals to industry. Pricing carbon is good for the economy, business and future generations,” Trudeau said.

When is a carbon price not a carbon price

But carbon pricing for Turnbull, because of the nature of the promises he gave to get the vote of some conservatives, may turn out to be a matter of definition.

It was interesting to note the release of the Climate Change Authority’s latest discussion paper on future policy actions on Monday afternoon in Australia.

The CCA, even though it is stacked with new Coalition appointees – designed to push it away from what environment minister Greg Hunt complained was a partisan political decision (i.e. they presented policy recommendations that accorded with the science) – insisted that the government needed new policies.

In other words, it said it couldn’t continue with just Direct Action.

“The fact is that Australia will need new policies to achieve its targets to 2030 and beyond,” the CCA noted in its discussion paper on policy mechanisms. It didn’t say much else apart from presenting a range of considerations, but this is where it gets interesting.

Under the collective heading “mandatory carbon pricing” the CCA includes an emissions trading scheme, a carbon tax, and baseline and credit schemes, and safeguard mechanisms.

It just so happens that Danny Price, the lobbyist and consultant who helped design Direct Action, has also designed a baseline and credit scheme as a sort of carbon pricing alternative. This is why Hunt put him on the CCA board.

But Hunt has dismissed an ETS and a carbon tax as one and the same, even though there are important differences. Can he somehow ignore the comparisons with the obvious alternatives?

It is clear that Turnbull has promised the LNP, in writing, that there will be no new ETS. But can he pretend that a baseline and credit scheme, or a safeguards mechanism, or a combination of both, is not a carbon price? It should be interesting to see how.

Australia doubles clean energy R&D

Australia became one of 20 countries to join something that called Mission Innovation, an agreement to double government investment in clean energy research and development. This amounts to $20 billion globally, but around $100 million in Australia’s case.

mission cip21 copy

Turnbull – who due to the chaotic logistics of the leaders’ day didn’t make it to the public announcement (pictured above, sans Turnbull) – likes to speak of innovation, but the galling reality for the innovators and developers of new technologies is that Australia has sought, and still seeks, to dismantle the two institutions designed to fund and finance that innovation.

The bills to pull apart the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency still exist, despite numerous opportunities for the Turnbull government to withdraw them.

Equally galling, the extra $100 million amounts to a mere fraction of the funding that has been stripped from ARENA by the Coalition government.

“Quite frankly, it’s a bit rich for Malcolm Turnbull to rip money out of the already diminished foreign aid budget, re-package it as climate finance and then claim it as a gesture of generosity,” said Greens deputy leader and climate spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters, who is also in Paris.

“His announcement was in complete contrast to the spirit of the Paris conference where we have seen countries like Canada, France and Germany significantly scale up their contributions to meet the climate challenge.

“Similarly, it’s hard to take the PM’s announcement of $100 million into clean energy research seriously when this government cut over double that amount of research and development, and won’t take our own clean energy agencies off the chopping block.

Leaders take centre stage, before the hard work begins.

Paris is the first time that country leaders have been summoned to speak and meet at the start of the conference, rather than the end. The leaders section has mostly served as a call to arms for all countries to act. Even Vladimir Putin said climate change was one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, and underlined his support for the 2°C target.

But the speeches also served to highlight the tensions that exist in the talks. These centre around what legal form the agreement will take, and who will take responsibility for emission reductions – the developed world, responsible for most historical emissions, or the developing world, responsible for most that will happen from now on.

It is one of the intractable issues that has dogged these talks for years, and underpinned the other flash points around climate finance, verification and loss and damage.

China’s Xi Jinping went out of his way to underline the principle of “common and differentiated responsibilities.” India’s Narendra Modi, did the same, but in less obscure language: “Climate change is not of our making. It is the result of global warming that came from an industrial age powered by fossil fuel.”

Most developing nations, however,  want the target made tighter, capping global warming at 1.5°C. This, of course would require developed countries to take even more decisive action, and vastly reduces their so-called carbon budget.

As for Turnbull, unlike Trudeau, he was never centre stage. His only public speaking event, apart from his set speech, turned out to be a briefing for Australian journalists (to which RenewEconomy – the only Australian media at the previous three CoPs, and a veteran of seven such events – was not invited). It highlights, given the paucity of his policy initiatives, that on the global stage Turnbull is an irrelevance.

All that is asked of him by other countries is that he does not get in the way. If his policies mean that Australia ultimately finds itself unable to compete in a world in rapid decarbonisation, then that is his and Australia’s problem, not theirs.

France and India underlined Australia’s increasing isolation, and the hollowness of its rhetoric, when they launched the global solar initiative. Both insisted that it wouldn’t be fossil fuels that deliver energy to the poor. Hollande insisted that fossil fuels “are not even the technologies of today.”

Fossil of the Day award:

The environmental NGOs keep a close watch on the negotiations, and each day present a “fossil of the day” award.

New Zealand shared the first gong of these talks for urging other countries to shed fossil fuel subsidies, at the same time propping up fossil fuel production to the tune of $80 million.

Belgium was the other joint winner, for being one of the few EU countries lagging behind on their carbon pollution reduction and renewable energy targets. And because its environment minister missed the train to Paris.

Giles Parkinson is in Paris for the duration of the climate talks. Additional reporting from Anne Delaney.

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  • Russell Yann

    Thank you Giles, keep up the good work. The rest of the Australian media seem to be missing in action.

    • Rob G

      It’s made worse by the current ‘love affair” the media seem to be having with Turnbull. It’s time to call him out on this. So far Giles’s article is the only one to get to truth of the matter.

  • Greg Smith

    Good on ya Malcom. The comminique was not much more than a politically correct manifesto. If it had left out the bit about being “socially regressive , and skewed…” as well as the IMF reference, it might have passed the mustard.

  • Tomfoolery

    Giles!! Great!! Cab we hear more about France and India’s solar announcement and more about Turnbull’s attempts to withdraw the bills to dismantle ARENA and CEFC?

  • Rob G

    What good is Turnbull if his party is run by right wing climate denialists who just love coal? What worries me is if he returns to power in 2016 and keeps the same stupid policies. Can I suggest those 40 countries apply a carbon tax to all Australian imports and exports – at double the rate. You look at Costa Rica and all those “per capita” arguments fall flat on their face.

  • janellethomas

    I don’t understand why anyone had any expectations Turnbull would be any different to Abbott. I thought all the hoo-haa about big things happening on dealing with climate change because Abbott and Harper had gone were ridiculous, considering Trudeau heads an entirely new government with new policies while Turnbull is just a new face heading the same old government and has to follow the same old polices that have been trashing Australia’s climate credentials for two years now.

    You might remember a 7.30 Report interview with Mal Brough, just one week after Turnbull became PM, in which Brough was asked what would happen if Turnbull moved too far from existing policy. His answer – “If Malcolm Turnbull was to go off on a tangent on his own, there’s enough of us here to pull him back to where we need to be, but I don’t see that as a risk”
    http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4316958.htm

    In other words, Turnbull will do as he is told.

    So why has there been this silly, baseless expectation that Turnbull would turn government policy around? He was never going to be any different to Abbott. We have seen the proof of that in his woeful performance in Paris.

    • Geoff

      so true and Paris is not the place to be woeful. the real test will be if he get’s re-elected. will he change back to he’s old self and actually do something right? I absolutely hate the conservatives – they really have him by the balls and the sooner they are gone the better.
      he needs to be careful though as again, he could be voted out again because of “climate policy”…

    • Geoff James

      The Brough interview was illuminating, Janelle, and suggested Turnbull must have a long-haul strategy or why would he bother taking the job? He’s managing the remainder of this term of government with his credibility barely intact, anticipating a revolt in the electorates to renew or redirect the party. So the fallout from COP21 can hopefully help that revolt? Geoff.

  • trackdaze

    You lot are just a bunch of hysterical climate cooling contrarians who don’t know how much of a gift our government has bestowed upon us. Just wait till Paris hears about our govt continued genius in such things as:

    Our billion dollar chainsaw buy back (aka direct action) scheme. That allows some of our trees to breath easy at night thereby absorbing more Co.2!

    The real beauty of this scheme is it effectively is a carbon tax in stealth as it transfers billions that could of in health,education,law and order et al. This it would appear was much preferable to the 100 or so of large companies who had grown rich on high emissions and ideally placed (and had started to do so) to reduce large amounts of co2

    Now with the billions being spent on direct action ontop of the loss of billions in additional revenue the carbon tax was bringing in. The treasurer says you can’t rely on the age pension. Cue the irony that super increases were cut to get the carbon tax repealed.

    • D. John Hunwick

      Giles you are the only sane and true reporter of all things renewable. If it wasn’t for you I would be in deep despair. Thank you for your reports – please maintain them for all us back here who are not getting the real picture from mainstream media. We need fossil fuel subsidies to be withdrawn by 2020, and all new coal mines to be stopped before they begin. Dirty coal-fired power stations should be shut down by 2018. Then we would know we had a climate concerned prime minister.

  • Peter Grant

    Thanks Giles, so much for the new transparency! – Malcolm avoids inviting the one Australian journalist who might ask some pointed and informed questions…

  • Rob

    How disappointing and depressing. It seems we don’t have leaders in Australia anymore. What we have is misleaders. Prime Ministers and politicians who think its okay to blatantly lie to Australians to advance their own rise up the political greasy pole. And the mainstream media is woefully missing in action. What a joke.

    • John P

      It is clear that Turnbull is not the actual leader of the Libs.
      Either Dutton is or, worse still, Minchin.

      • Rob

        I agree John. As we suspected all along. As another contributor said, “Turnbull is all froth and bubbles”. And dare I say, “the emperor has no clothes”.

  • jenisworld22

    Shameful. Australia, the little minnow on the world stage, being suffocated by its fossil attitudes to fossil fuels. What a hypocrite Malcolm is turning out to be… bound hand and foot to a bunch of fossilised, extreme conservatives who put him at the helm.

  • Bernie

    So Malcolm Turnbull turns out to be just a polished up Tony Abbott. Can’t wait to read how successful he found the paris talks. had the feeling all along that this man was all froth and bubbles and nothing more.

  • ozmq

    I am still hoping that with Turnbull it might be a case of “softly, softly, catchee monkey”. Best to remain hopeful, it’s healthier than impotent rage.

    And thank you Giles.

  • JohnOz

    Thank you Giles.

    This should by syndicated to all new outlets in OZ and worldwide. It’s going to make interesting reading in 50 years time when the Australian government’s spectacular failure in this area will be only too clear to see.

    Just as justice delayed is justice denied, inaction on global warming is effectively denial that action is needed – and eventually it will simply be too late to avoid catastrophic impacts of global warming.

  • howardpatr

    At least Australia’s Prime Minister is fleeing Paris shortly so his blatant ducking and weaving will end – what an embarrassment. Meanwhile back here the ABC can do a program on renewable energy technologies from around the world which demonstrates just how far behind we are and the MSM effectively ignores it.

    A backward nation run by backward thinking politicians

    • Barri Mundee

      No not backward: the LNP is more or less in the pockets of FF interests.

  • brickbob

    Turnbulls ””’ speech”” in Paris was cringeworthy,and i dont know why he even showed up, i am reminded of the Groucho Marx line. These are my principles and if you dont like them,well, i have others.

  • Chris Fraser

    The pro-carbon price people are the righteous. Australia provides 5 times more subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewables. It is a market distortion and it is time to finish it (Yes, looking directly at You, Mal. If you were the maker of your own destiny you’d probably enjoy the parties more).

  • Maurice Oldis

    The ultimate LAME DUCK P.M. Bernardi has him in a squirrel grip!!!

  • Malcolm M

    Prior to his election by the party as Prime Minister, Turnbull promised to restore true cabinet government, as had occurred under Howard. He promised an end to the “captain’s calls” of Abbott. Having been ousted once before as party leader 5 years earlier, he is acutely aware of the risks of going beyond what the majority of the party will accept. He has more chance than anyone of bringing the rest of the party with him, which would lead to much more politically sustainable action than the unrealistically high carbon tax forced onto Labour by the Greens. He doesn’t have the authority to make new greenhouse gas commitments at Paris, because of cabinet decisions prior to his election as leader (and which he supported as a member of cabinet at the time). Nevertheless there are substantial benefits through a change in rhetoric, an end to white anting of international efforts, funding commitments for innovation, and Hunt is now more free to support greener policies.

  • johnnewton

    Thanks Giles, could we swap Turnbull for Trudeau?

  • mike flanagan

    Thanks Giles, we are all indebted to you, for your clarity and purpose.

  • MaxG

    He should give the travel allowance back for under-performance.
    Well, the Australian got what they deserve, because they voted for it. Fools breed fools. With regard to climate change and the necessary action, I am ashamed to be Australian.

  • Rob

    Prime Minister Turnbull has feet of clay……and they’re starting to crack.

  • Pedro

    Turnbull is pragmatically holding on to the top job by placating the pro fossil fuel politicians in the LNP. The question is, has Turnbull got the courage to take on these regressive politicians by putting forward some decent climate policies would the LNP dare to dump him before the next election?

    Turnbull is surely aware of the pro RE sentiment within the electorate. PV is hugely popular and 150,000 people marched around the nation last weekend which was barely reported. I noted at least 10 climate active NGO’s were present, including first nations peoples, fire fighters, doctors, 3 religious denominations, unions, solar citizens, 350.org, AYCCA and a few more. The next question, is can Turnball and the LNP ignore the disappointment and wrath of all these organisations at the next election. Remember that these same organisations can mobilize thousands of grass roots supporters in every electorate with particular emphasis on the marginal electorates and or the electorates of regressive politicians. Note that the seat of Canning was on the brink of being lost with a massive 10% swing before Abbot was dumped. The ASC and solar citizens were very actively campaigning in that seat and can take some of the credit for the swing.