Australia's Trade Minister Says Barack Obama's Climate Change Policy Is Just Talk

Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb (Photo: Bloomberg)

Australia’s chief trade-deals negotiator has labeled the bid by President Barack Obama to cut U.S. power-plant emissions as lacking substance.

“There’s no action associated with it,” Trade Minister Andrew Robb said in a Sky News interview from Houston, Texas, where he was accompanying Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Abbott, who is seeking to dismantle Australia’s carbon- price mechanism before it hosts Group of 20 leaders in November, isn’t supporting Obama’s bid to pressure India, China and other nations to help form a world-wide agreement to combat climate change. The president is seeking state-by-state limitations on carbon-dioxide emissions to limit the effects of man-made global warming, and earlier this month proposed cutting power-plant discharges, the nation’s largest source of the gas, by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

“Despite the rhetoric you get over here and all the targets for 30 percent reductions and all this, it’s just rhetoric,” Robb said.

Obama discussed climate change with Abbott when they met in the White House on June 12 during the Australian leader’s first trip to the U.S. since his Liberal-National coalition won government in September.

Abbott blames the carbon price, established in 2011 by Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, for a surge in electricity prices and vowed in his election campaign to dismantle it. At stake for the leader of the industrialized world’s biggest per- capita emitter of fossil fuels is protecting the nation’s coal industry, its second-largest export earner.

Falling Exports

Australia’s coal exports, under pressure from a glut from suppliers, fell 3.6 percent last year from 2012 to A$39.8 billion ($37.4 billion), according to government trade figures.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leader of Australia’s biggest trading partner, was reported by the official Xinhua News Agency June 13 as saying China will phase out coal plants that still fail to meet environmental standards after they are upgraded.

Pointing out that Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of black coal, Abbott told an audience of business leaders in Houston on June 13: “We don’t believe in ostracizing any particular fuel and we don’t believe in harming economic growth.

‘‘For many decades at least, coal will continue to fuel human progress as an affordable, dependable energy source for wealthy and developing countries alike,” Abbott, 56, said.

Direct Action

The Abbott administration is attempting to enact laws to replace the carbon-price mechanism with a so-called Direct Action Plan, which consists mainly of taxpayer-funded grants to companies. The government says that will still allow the world’s 12th-largest economy to meet its promised 5 percent reduction in emissions by 2020.

Abbott’s legislation to repeal the carbon-price mechanism is expected to pass parliament as early as next month when a new Senate convenes, with the balance of power held in the upper house by a party led by coal and iron-ore magnate Clive Palmer.

Australia’s Direct Action would see more money spent per capita on climate-change initiatives than Obama’s plan, Robb said in the Sky News interview, broadcast yesterday. Robb was in Houston as part of a visiting delegation of Australian lawmakers and business leaders promoting trade as part of Abbott’s U.S. visit.

Obama, who will visit Australia for the G-20 leaders summit in November, on June 14 compared those skeptical about man- caused alterations to the environment to a belief that the moon is “made of cheese.” Rising temperatures and sea levels and intensifying storm patterns define “one of the most significant long-term challenges that our country and our planet face,” he said.

Military Allies

Obama and Abbott’s nations are allies, with Australia hosting as many as 2,500 Marines at its Darwin military base as part of the U.S. pivot into the Asia-Pacific to check Chinese expansionism. The two leaders had discussed climate change “including in the context of the G-20,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a June 12 press briefing to reporters in Washington.

“President Obama emphasized the need for ambitious domestic climate policies as the basis of a strong international response,” Carney said. “The United States will continue working with Australia to advance climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency solutions.”

When asked in a June 12 radio interview whether climate change should be on the G-20 agenda, Australia Treasurer Joe Hockey responded: “No, the G-20 is an economic forum.”

Australia’s bid to scrap its carbon price comes as the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, start diplomatic coordination on the issue, and Europe expands the world’s biggest carbon market.

Global Warming

Scientists warn that the Earth is on track to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution, the fastest shift since the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked world leaders to bring plans for action on climate to a summit in New York in September. In a bid to limit emissions in both industrialized and developing nations for the first time, the UN is seeking to craft an agreement in 2015 that would include 190 countries.

“Our prime minister is trying to undermine the rest of the world achieving a treaty to address climate change,” Christine Milne, leader of Australia’s Greens Party, said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television interview yesterday. “He wants to reinforce massive coal exports. He is last century’s man.”

©2014 Bloomberg News

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