COP21: Who is setting Australia's agenda on climate change?

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When it comes to action on climate change, the Government has permitted "big business" to take out public insurance against democracy, says Kellie Tranter.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION documents reveal that the mining sector, capitalising on its access to government officials, has been busy laying the groundwork for Australia’s position in relation to any emissions reduction commitments struck in Paris.

The mining industry claims to account for about 11 per cent of Australia’s GDP and more than half of Australia’s merchandise exports. It was reported in June that Australia received more than $4 billion from foreign governments to fund coal projects since 2007, with Australia being the fourth highest recipient of public finance for coal.

With the industry's persistent lobbying about its economic importance and its provision of up to date ready-made analyses and arguments, it is perhaps unsurprising that the continued promotion of coal has been accepted by the government as in Australia’s national economic interest. Or, that the government will continue to maintain its defensive stance in relation to the coal industry.

In February, Bernie Delaney, part-time advisor to Peabody Energy, requested a meeting with Sam Gerovich, Australia’s Ambassador for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), to discuss, 

‘U.S. moves to have the OECD enact a policy guidance document which restricts funding for coal fired power generation projects ...’

In the same month, Brendan Pearson, Chief Executive of the Minerals Council of Australia, met with Mr Gerovich and later emailed him the PACE 2014 World Coal Association Concept Paper (Concept Paper).

The Concept Paper asserts:

In the lead-up to COP21 in Paris there is no evidence to suggest that mitigation action arising from any climate treaty will come close to achieving emissions reductions necessary to limit atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 450ppm [the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is currently 400ppm for the first time in recorded history] ... Deploying high efficiency, low emission coal-fired power plants is a key step along a pathway to near-zero emissions from coal with carbon capture, use and storage ... The vision of Platform for Accelerating Coal Efficiency would be to raise global average efficiency of coal-fired power plants and so minimise CO2 emissions which will otherwise be emitted while maintaining legitimate economic development and poverty alleviation efforts ...

Singing from the Concept Paper, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott led the charge with his insistence that "coal is good for humanity”.

Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg also toed the industry line with his moral case for the approval of the Adani coal mine because it would help pull millions of people in India and other countries out of energy poverty.

It was only after Australia adopted its obstructionist postion, in relation to attempts by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to rein in export subsidies for coal power stations, that Trade Minister Andrew Robb, last month, issued a media release indicating:

'Australia’s objective in these negotiations was to ensure developing countries have access to High Efficiency, Low Emissions technologies, while at the same time, ensuring their energy needs continue to be met.'

'High Efficiency, Low Emissions (or HELE) coal-fired power plants', again comes straight from the Concept Paper in the context of being part of the plan for economic development, poverty reduction and,

‘A key step along a pathway to near zero-emissions from coal with carbon capture, use and storage.’

But the laudable objectives spruiked by the coal industry don't actually seem to be put into effect. The report, “Under the Rug: How Governments and International Institutions Are Hiding Billions in Support to the Coal Industry”, launched in June by WWF, Natural Resources Defense Council and Oil Change International notes,

‘Zero export finance for coal has gone to Low Income Countries, where the need for energy access is greatest, whilst one-fourth went to High Income Countries with no energy poverty concerns.’

In February, Brendan Pearson wrote to the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet urging the Government,

‘to significantly expand the nature and breadth of economic analysis that will inform the setting of Australia’s emissions reduction commitment ahead of COP21.’

Naturally, the Minerals Council had already: 

received advice from a range of Australia’s most experienced economic modellers that it is possible to undertake the detailed economic analysis outlined above in sufficient time to inform the setting of Australia’s 2025/2030 emissions reduction target later this year.’

So it was not surprising when Australia recently refused to sign the Fossil-Fuel Subsidy Reform Communique to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. The Financial Review reported

‘Pressure built on Mr Turnbull and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who is also in Paris, when the Minerals Council of Australia contacted the minister several days ago to express concern at the communique’. 

Mr Pearson also happened to be in attendance at the backbench policy committee meeting on Monday.

Who is really setting the agenda for Australia's position in relation to fossil fuels and CO2 reduction? Will large resource companies use the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, under the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, to frustrate action on climate change by raising the prospect of potentially large amounts of financial liability that would not otherwise be present?

In October, participants at the New South Wales Liberal State Council scoffed at Malcolm Turnbull – with good reason it seems – when he asserted,

“Nor are we [the Liberal Party] run by big business or by deals in back rooms.”

When it comes to action on climate change the Government has permitted "big business" to take out public insurance against democracy.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter.

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