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Palmer steps in to Australian climate change debate

Politician Clive Palmer stepped in to oppose the government's plans

The Australian government’s plan to overturn environmental polices tackling climate change is in chaos after a surprise intervention by mining magnate-turned-politician Clive Palmer. Palmer, until very recently a fervent climate sceptic and promoter of a huge coal mine, was flanked by former US vice-president and climate change campaigner Al Gore, when he said that his Palmer Unity Party (PUP), which will hold the balance of power when the new Senate sits in July, would oppose the abolition of two Australian environmental agencies, as well as the removal of renewable energy targets. 

The PUP’s three senators, together with another independent senator who has formed an alliance with Palmer, can block government measures that are also opposed by the opposition Labor and Green parties. However, Palmer said his party would conditionally support the repeal of a contentious price on carbon, which prime minister Tony Abbott pledged to axe when he took power last September. But the PUP would oppose the business-oriented Liberal-National coalition’s centerpiece replacement policy, the Direct Action Plan (DAP), which is designed to cut emissions by offering grants to industry. 

Still, the alternative, Palmer’s “zero-priced” emissions trading scheme, is vague, most notably on how preconditions for action are carried out by Australia’s major trade partners (US, China, Japan, South Korea, Europe) will be defined. 

While each of these markets has an emissions trading in place at various international, and sub-national levels, the establishment of nation-wide emissions trading within each of these markets – should this be the definition proposed by PUP – will be a high threshold to be met. For instance, nationwide emissions trading schemes are unlikely in China or the US before 2018-2020.

As a result, carbon consultancy RepuTex says that the Australian market may face a lengthy policy gap in controlling its greenhouse gas emissions growth. Emissions would expand by 12% per year above 2000 levels under a “zero carbon price” scenario by 2020, says the Melbourne-based company. The Australian market needs an average abatement of 70 million tonnes each year from 2015 to 2020 to meet its cumulative abatement target of 421m tonnes, equal to a 5% reduction in emissions from 2000 levels. 

But Abbott’s DAP proposal has been widely criticised for its inability to attract finance or deliver big cuts in emissions, let alone hit Australia’s 5% reduction target or the 19% goal recommended by the government’s Climate Change Authority (CCA), which Abbot is seeking to dismantle. Conversely, the carbon price mechanism, introduce by the previous Labor government, has been running for two years and shows signs of working. Crucially, Palmer’s action should leave key infrastructure of the carbon price mechanism in place, meaning that the emissions trading scheme can be dusted off and reintroduced at short notice. 

Gore praised Palmer for supporting the two agencies targeted for closure – the clean energy finance corporation and the CCA – as well as for supporting renewable energy targets set at generating 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. “While I will be disappointed if the immediate price on carbon is removed because it is a policy that I believe to be ultimately critical to solving the climate crisis, I am hopeful that Australia will continue to play a global leadership role on this most pressing issue," the Financial Times quoted Gore as saying.

For the time being, Australia’s climate policy remains a mess. In the wake of Palmer’s surprise move, the only certainty is that confusion reins. 

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