Last week the world-renowned American environmentalist, Bill McKibben, declared that our prime minister now apparently saw his principal role in international affairs as the global ambassador of coal, his only real concern being to protect Australia’s own coal industry.
The immediate cause of McKibben’s description was the television image of Tony Abbott being presented with an over-sized Stetson hat by some of America’s biggest oil barons, to which our man responded with a somewhat embarrassed: ‘Yee ha’.
Now McKibben is himself a global ambassador against coal, which he regards as the dirtiest and most polluting of all fuels, and the greatest driver of climate change: he is hardly an impartial observer. But he has a point. In Texas Abbott spruiked the need to prevent the ostracising of any particular fuel source and earlier in Canada he had warned that we should not clobber the economy in order to reduce emissions and combat climate change.
So it is clear that he sees the environment and the economy as fundamentally opposed, with the economy being paramount. The idea that both can be developed in harmony is dismissed as wishful thinking, a fanciful Utopia. This approach is totally consistent with Abbott’s goodies-versus-baddies view of the world, but it is increasingly being left behind by his more sophisticated global peers, and not just the political ones.
Last week the GetUp organisation announced triumphantly that four major financial institutions – Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Credit Agricole and now the Bank of Scotland – had withdrawn their financial support from the Abbot Point coal loader, whose construction may be detrimental to the Great Barrier Reef. The UNESCO World Heritage Commission had warned of the dangers when giving the Australian government a year to act or the reef would lose its world heritage status.
GetUp understandably attributed the rejections to the public campaign, which it said was now being extended to Barclay’s Bank, among others; but a dispassionate observer might consider that cold-hearted economics had something to do with it as well. The world price of coal is now in decline – European prices are the lowest for five years and there is no expectation that the trend will be reversed.
The problem is both over-production, especially from Australia, and lower demand: almost all coal-consuming countries are now trying to cut down on their reliance on the fuel. In China, Australia’s most important market, coal now accounts for 67.5 per cent of all its energy needs – the lowest figure on record. True, China’s imports of coal are still increasing – last year at a healthy (from Abbott’s point of view) 4.7 per cent, but this figure is only half what it was a few years ago.
In China, the pollution problem has now become a serious public health issue, and the country is not alone. In America, Barack Obama is selling his own crackdown on dirty industries not as an attempt to combat climate change – a concept apparently considered beyond the reach of his electorate – but as an attempt to combat chronic lung diseases, increasingly common in many industrialised areas.
In overall terms, coal and oil are still clearly ahead of the rest, but renewables are growing more rapidly than either. Reportedly, Abbott felt constrained to reassure the American president that his resumption of oil price excise indexation was sending the same price signal to consumers as Julia Gillard’s carbon tax. Obama’s response to this preposterous assertion was not recorded.
And at home, of course, even as some of the planned coal expansions, especially in Queensland’s giant Galilee Basin – the ostensible reason for ports such as Abbot Point – are being put on hold, Abbott remains determined to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The old senate knocked him back twice; now he is counting on the new senate, or more specifically Clive Palmer, to wave it through next month. And why not? After all, his sensitive Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has already pronounced wind farms utterly offensive, a blight on the landscape, obviously preferring the aesthetically pleasing view of a few coalfields.
Abbott claims to be in tune with the thinking of his new soulmate, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, but there is a significant difference. Harper is determined to develop the vast oil sands fields of Alberta, possibly the only fuel source to rival coal as a pollutant; but it could be argued that in his vast, frozen, northern domain with few resources other than rocks and trees and water, he has no real alternative. But in Australia the slavish addiction to fossil fuels is not only short-sighted but positively perverse: no country is better placed to exploit wind and solar power. Yet the intention is apparently to ignore them, if not phase them out altogether.
Abbott still (or rather, for the last couple of years) claims to believe in man-made climate change and to want to do something about it – as long, of course, as it does not affect the economy in any way at all, and that means the coal industry in particular. He will politely ask the big polluters if there is anything at all they can do to clean up their act, and if they manage to do so, he will reward them. If they don’t, or just tell him to piss off, well, that’s their right.
But not all his troops are quite so gung-ho. Last week the environment minister, Greg Hunt, deferred approval for the giant Galilee Basin Carmichael Mine, owned by the Adani Corporation, the people behind Abbot Point. It’s only a deferral, and with unrelenting pressure from Abbott and from Queensland’s single-minded premier Campbell Newman, Hunt will probably end up signing on the dotted line. But the longer it drags on, the more likely it is that not just public pressure but more importantly economic reality will catch up with the project, and many others like it.
Our ambassador for coal may suddenly find himself representing not just a fossil, but one of value only to collectors of memorabilia. Not much to yee ha about in that.