US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott shake hands following a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on June 12, 2014 in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott shake hands following a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on June 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mandel NGAN - AFP Photo

Abbott uses North America trip to antagonise US on policy

IT WAS time to draw a line in the tar sands. Blindsided by Barack Obama's renewed push for action on global warming, the conservative Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia are making a stand.

The United States President's drive to spark international momentum ahead of next year's climate summit in Paris poses a direct threat to their preferred route to prosperity.

Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott's shared ideology includes a desire for an emissions-packed future where Canada's dirty tar sands and Australia's coal fuel their nations' respective economies for decades to come.

When they met in Ottawa this week, both claimed to be serious about tackling climate change, but without hurting big emitters like the coal or oil industries.

"I don't believe the best way to improve the environment is to clobber the economy," said Abbott before yesterday's meeting with Obama.

"And I'm not going to take climate change action which does clobber the economy."

The PM also disagreed with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who considers the issue the world's number one priority.

It was neither "the only or even the most important problem the world faces," Abbott told Ban, before declining an invitation to UN climate talks in New York later this year. Abbott is also refusing to bow to American pressure to add the issue to the agenda of the G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane in November.

The PM's faux sincerity on climate change, something he not so long ago regarded as "crap", is well documented. But on his first official trip to North America, the nature of his public language around the issue has raised eyebrows.

It led in part to speculation that he and Harper want to forge an alliance of like-minded countries to stymie the prospect of any international accord on reducing CO2 through emissions trading schemes and carbon pricing.

Widespread caps on emissions would choke the exports of fossil fuels and minerals that have underpinned Australia's modern prosperity, and Abbott bristles at the thought of leaving vast remaining reserves of coal in the ground.

"I can think of few things more damaging to our future," he told industry executives last month. "It is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world."

By affordable energy, Abbott is primarily referring to coal and gas. By contrast, clean renewable alternatives are under siege.

The Coalition's first Budget last month wielded an axe to agencies and initiatives that have propelled the growth of a A$20 billion ($21.7 billion) clean energy sector, which employs 24,000 people.

The PM is also desperate to abolish the previous Labor Government's carbon tax, and is confident of securing required support from incoming senators led by balance-of-power MP and billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer. He is a key player in massive new mining projects approved by the Abbott Government, and the development of one of the world's biggest coal ports near the Great Barrier Reef.

Funding for the tax's replacement - the Government's widely-criticised Direct Action plan - has been slashed from A$2.55 billion to just A$1.15 billion over the next four years.

There are also growing concerns over Australia's longstanding commitment to produce 20 per cent of its domestic electricity consumption from renewables by 2020.

Just before the Coalition took power last September, the Renewable Energy Target was reviewed by the Climate Change Authority, an independent statutory agency established under Labor.

Abbott, who is trying to close down the authority, has asked a group of former oil, coal and gas industry executives to conduct another review.

It's being led by former Caltex chief Dick Warburton, who is openly sceptical that carbon emissions contribute to climate change. One of his fellow panellists doesn't believe CO2 is a pollutant. Another previously lobbied for the target to be scrapped.

That would prove popular with energy utilities hit by a fall in demand for "poles and wires" electricity, fuelled in part by increased household use of solar.

The uncertainty has prompted a collapse in confidence - and share prices - across the renewables sector, alongside fears of investment drying up and expertise heading overseas.

Unlike many in Australia, Abbott views recent record-breaking heatwaves, bushfires and other weather events as nothing unusual in his "land of drought and flooding rains".

He insists he is committed to Australia's modest goal of reducing emissions by 5 per cent on 2005 levels by 2020, but critics believe the real commitment is to shoring up entrenched interests, particularly coal exports most at risk from co-ordinated global action.

"An important part of Abbott's agenda, as it was with John Howard refusing to ratify Kyoto, is to sabotage the international effort to put a price on carbon," says energy economist Barry Naughten.

Obama's move to cut carbon emissions from US power plants by 30 per cent by 2030 has raised hopes of a break in the global impasse.

Republican and Tea Party opponents - gearing up for the American mid-term elections - will be heartened by the forthright response from Australia and Canada.

"It's very dangerous," adds Naughten. "If you take human-caused climate change seriously, you have got to take really seriously the political moves Abbott and Harper are taking."

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