SYDNEY, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tenuous grip on power has again put climate-change policy at the centre of the nation’s political leadership struggle, raising concerns among miners and hopes for renewable energy advocates.
Abbott, a climate-change sceptic, faces a vote on his leadership of the conservative Liberal Party on Monday, which could invite a challenge from former environment minister Malcolm Turnbull, the man he ousted as party leader in 2009.
Abbott’s vehement opposition to a carbon emissions trading scheme was a key factor in his usurping Turnbull and in his 2013 election victory over the Labor Party, which was itself riven with divisions over the issue.
Former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard lost public support and ultimately her job largely due to breaking a promise that she would not put a tax on carbon emissions as leader.
Any shift away from Abbott’s unconditional opposition to a carbon tax would be met with “great resistance”, according to a former mining company executive now working as an analyst in the sector, who asked not to be identified.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and iron ore and one of the largest carbon emitters on a per capita basis thanks to its reliance on coal-fired power plants.
Turnbull, a multimillionaire lawyer and investment banker, previously backed an emissions-trading scheme and said he would not lead a party that did not share his commitment to the environment. He is currently communications minister.
But as speculation of a challenge has mounted, Turnbull has sought to soothe the fears of the Liberal Party’s right-wing faction and rural-based Nationals Party coalition colleagues who oppose any form of carbon pricing.
Turnbull, who has yet to make an official challenge to Abbott, says the 2013 election served as a referendum on an emissions-trading scheme.
“In the event of there being a new global agreement we’ll review the existing policy,” he said last week. “But the idea we would or should suddenly reinstate something we have abolished is ridiculous.”
While the prospect of an immediate return to an emissions trading scheme appears remote, a new leadership could help end an impasse over support for Australia’s renewable energy target (RET).
Some 44 Australian windfarm projects have been put on ice since Abbott’s government said a year ago it wanted to cut the targets. Abbott has yet to win parliamentary approval for such a cut, and investors and operators say they may downscale or leave the country altogether if that happens.
Andrew Thomson, managing director of the Australian energy division of Spain’s Acciona, the world’s largest renewable energy firm, said it was unclear what a leadership change would mean for the industry.
“But if you look at what’s happening internationally, at the G20 there was lot of coordinated pressure coming to bear around the issue of climate change,” he told Reuters.
“Within the next few months the Australian government is going to have to make it clear to the international community what its ambitions are post-2020. The RET is such a critical piece of policy because there’s really not much left when it comes to climate policy.”
Abbott famously said the argument behind global warming was “absolute crap” in 2009 and has since said he takes climate change “very seriously” while also describing coal as a fuel of the future and good for humanity.
He adopted a so-called Direct Action plan to tackle global warming through measures such as planting trees, but climate advocates say it will not do enough to cut emissions and is out of step with changing voter sentiment and international action.
“We have taken an absurd course and we have locked ourselves out of conversations that are critical - we’re a laughing stock in the U.N. on this issue,” said Blair Palese, the chief executive of environmental group 350.org. “There is every opportunity for someone, a moderate, to wipe the slate clean and come up with something that is going to work.” (Additional reporting by Byron Kaye and James Regan; Editing by Mark Bendeich)