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The new Minister for Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg is nicknamed ‘Mr Coal' because of his past support for the mining industry
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Australian Climate Sceptics Challenge Clean Energy Plan

Maxine Newlands

28th July, 2016

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has handed the environment portfolio to the energy minister in an attempt to calm climate sceptics. But will it work? Ecologist writer Maxine Newlands reports.

Time will tell if Turnbull's strategy is an innovative climate change policy, but first he needs to convince conservative members within his own party that combining energy and the environment is a shrewd move

Merging the environment and energy portfolios is a strategy to shush dissenting voices from the climate sceptic right.  But, environmental advocates and climate scientists see linking the environment with energy as a sideward step in addressing climate change and protecting the Reef.

The new Minister for Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg is nicknamed ‘Mr Coal' because of his past support for the mining industry.  Critics say the Minister can't be objective with 50% of his job reducing emissions to address climate change whilst simultaneously supporting increasing carbon emissions from new coal mines.

Turnbull's outward vision is that the two portfolios will complement each other in reaching a renewable energy target (RET) of 23.5% by 2020.  Australian Labor Party wants a target of 50% by 2020.  RET investment will come from an emissions reduction fund put in place by market fund mechanisms and supported by a $10bn clean energy finance corporation.

Greenpeace Australia, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner Nikola Casule thinks the PM's strategy shows contempt for the Australian environment.  Casule says "For Malcolm Turnbull to appoint a minister who still believes that there is still a strong moral case for coal even during the worst coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef's history is a clear show of contempt for the Australian public". 

Turnbull is attempting to keep the conservative sceptics onside, including former PM Tony Abbott; and pacify Labor on renewable targets.  With the balance of power down to a single seat, Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull faces pressure to support the mining industry over renewable energy targets.

Labor's position strengthened this week with the remaining federal election seat of Herbert going their way.  Herbert has been a Liberal National stronghold for 20 years and is a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.  With Labor seizing the seat by just 35 votes, any future mining applications that come up in Parliament will pile on the pressure.

Can Australia really move to clean energy?

Australia isn't the first country combining environment and energy portfolios.  The Republic of Maldives and Sweden hold similar positions.  But, it is the first country with a heavy reliance on the mining industry for economic stability, and to have a Minister who advocates for coal export and nuclear power.  Australia is a nuclear-power free zone, yet it holds the world's third largest uranium deposits after Kazakhstan and Canada.

Frydenberg is holding all the cards on future mining licenses, and already ruling out a U-turn on the world's second largest coal mine, the Galilee Basin Mining Project.  He's adamant that mining and renewables can be symbiotic and help preserve the World Heritage status of environmental icons including the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and Tasmanian Forests.  He says, "In 2004, 70% of Australia's electricity generation came from coal, today it's just above 60%". The coal market is declining, and electricity sources will need to come from elsewhere. Over the last two years, prices for high quality metallurgical coal, thermal coal and iron ore has shrunk by 7.4% at ($9.4bn) to $118.3bn. The export Price Index  has fallen to 23% in the last three years.

Frydenberg took to social media this week to defend himself against accusations of climate scepticism.  Tweeting a video link with the line "Despite David Marr's [a journalist's] claim I've said climate change is real &transition [sic] away from coal not a bad thing".  Frydenberg can be heard saying "The environment is an important issue at this election...and I'm not here to debate the science, I accept the science".  Yet, he's on record saying that Australia's coal export is a necessity to help people in India out of energy poverty.

Australia's Conservative Right and the Climate Deniers.

Time will tell if Turnbull's strategy is an innovative climate change policy, but first he needs to convince conservative members within his own party that combining energy and the environment is a shrewd move.

Josh Frydenberg's successor as Minister for Resources and Northern Development, Matt Canavan is a climate sceptic.  He says that "climate change science has become less certain and gives us less reason to worry since the last major climate conference in Copenhagen six years ago".  Speaking in the Australian Senate last December, Canavan adds "recent research shows that Arctic sea ice and polar ice caps are not melting at 'unnatural' rates and do not constitute evidence of a human impact on the climate". 

Canavan is not a lone voice. Tony Abbott says "the climate change science is far from settled. The facts we've had if anything suggest cooling temperatures".  Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi calls the debate alarmism, "I have never bought the alarmist hysteria attached to carbon dioxide as driving climate change. There's no consensus of scientists".  Deputy PM, and leader of the Nationals Party, Barnaby Joyce tweeted, "I'm just always sceptical of the idea about the way that anybody's going to change the climate".

Worryingly, two of the five constituencies along the Great Barrier Reef are held by climate sceptics. To the south, Liberal National MP George Christensen likens "climate change to a science fiction film plot".  Further north, Liberal Senator Iain McDonald recently told parliament "Never have I denied the climate was changing...Australia was once covered in ice; of course the climate changes. The centre of Australia was once a rainforest; of course the climate changes...This new theory-I often refer to it as a fad, a farce or a hoax-that suddenly, since the start of the industrial age, that sort of change of climate is happening anew, is just farcical and fanciful".

Balance of Power a Tough Task.

Fusing energy and the environment could see an innovative partnership easing any transition from dirty to clean energy.  Australia's Green's co-leader and Queensland Senator, Larissa Waters says that if the merger by Turnbull is genuine it could "give the Reef a chance and to protect our Pacific neighbours from sea-level rise" and suggests Frydenberg's title should be Minister for the Environment and for Clean Energy.

Frydenberg chairs the bi-annual Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council in August.  The meeting promises to look for ways to integrate renewables into the energy markets; gas prices and supply, promotion of gas market reform to make sure prices are competitive for energy consumers.  

Maxine.newlands@jcu.edu.au or maxine@newlands.tv

@Dr_MaxNewlands

This Author

Maxine is a Political Scientist at James Cook University, Queensland, Australia. Her research centres on environmental governance, politics, protest movements and political communication in the media. Maxine is a regular political commentator for both print, TV and radio, and has been writing for the Ecologist for the past four years. 

 

 

 

 

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