October 24, 2015
MALCOLM Turnbull has made it – perhaps at a cost. He has learnt the lessons from his last stint as leader, including the art of political compromise. But has he done a deal with the devil? He appears to have assured the right wing of the party and the National Party that he will hold the line on some hallmarks of the Abbott government, especially coal.
Malcolm Turnbull has a reputation as a progressive thinker and his record on seeking to negotiate the emissions trading scheme with the Rudd Government is well known. The expectations of middle Australia run high; they expect progress on climate change policy. He is a clever man but negotiating these expectations and the deal with the right has the potential to disappoint mightily.
The commitment by the Turnbull Government to allow the development of the Galilee Basin coal reserves by Indian company Adani could well be pivotal in the environmental battle around global warming. There will be a point where, in the face of inaction on climate change, or where decisions are taken that directly aggravate it, conservation groups scale up their activities as they did in the 1970s with the damming of the Franklin River and Lake Pedder. Those battles were pivotal in the election of the Hawke government in 1983.
The Abbott government showed a gratuitous commitment to the coal industry, and so far Turnbull has maintained this position. Labor has already committed to an ETS in the next election campaign, a good move juxtaposing Labor against the wooden-headed approach of the Abbott Government. But how will it bite against a Turnbull Government?
It depends on when the politics around global warming will again achieve acute political saliency. In 2007 the electorate was strongly concerned about climate change, prompting John Howard to promise to introduce an emissions trading scheme.
Climatic impacts will probably hold the answer. A significant environmental disaster or two will change the urgency felt by the public. As the world warms, it is expected that climate-induced turbulence will increase; the early onset of a bushfire season across the eastern states this year may well fit this scenario.
There is consensus that we should maintain global warming to 2 degrees – a figure that will still lead to significant change in climate behaviour. The more recent advice on the instability in the West Antarctic ice shelf suggests that changes are already occurring ahead of predictions and much change is already in train and unavoidable.
Simply put, to keep the global temperature rise to 2 degrees, vast reserves of coal, including those in Galilee Basin, and oil must stay in the ground. Because of his previous commitment to an ETS, there are high expectations of Mr Turnbull but has he agreed to have his hands tied on this key issue?
Echoes of Kevin Rudd’s grand statement that climate change is "the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation" were heard from Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg – but paradoxically he claimed there was a "strong moral case" to proceed with Adani's $16 billion coal mine.
Apparently developing the Galilee Basin coal reserves will help drag the poor of India out of poverty. The only time I have heard a capitalist argue the interests of a third world country is when they can sell them something and make a buck out of it.
Australia does not need the Galilee Basin and nor does India. The pace of development of renewable energy in the world is stunning. Developing countries do not blindly follow the development path of the West. They will go straight to modern technology. In any event, there is plenty of coal already washing around the market from existing developments.
India and other emerging economies will not dwell on the old economies of coal for energy, in the same way that they have not relied on copper wire for communications. They are already embracing the new and emerging modern technologies and will adopt them quicker than we will.
Mr Turnbull has embraced the notion of disruption in industry but seems to be welded onto the legacy of coal, an industry approaching redundancy. Ironically it was Malcolm Turnbull who scaled down the national broadband network to keep Australia dependent on the old Telstra copper network.
Coal is on the way out and the Galilee Basin development is not a done deal. It will struggle to get finance. Last week the ANZ joined other banks in announcing stricter lending criteria for carbon-based investments. The Bloomberg coal producers’ index shows a 40 per cent drop in market capitalisation this year alone (Loftus Peak).
The relief most of felt after the change of Prime Minister, at the change in rhetoric on national security, could be lost in a high-profile battle over last century’s technology.