SYDNEY (Reuters) - Business and political leaders around the world, most notably in the powerhouses of the United States and China, are pressing for action to avert the potentially huge financial repercussions of climate change.
But this year there’s a major stumbling block to concerted global action. The most vocal climate change skeptic in the Group of 20 leading industrialized nations is its current host, Australia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has tempered his public rhetoric since 2009 when he said the science behind climate change was “crap”. But he has left the issue off the agenda for the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane on Nov. 15-16.
Abbott has dismayed environmentalists, renewable energy companies and countries with a string of decisions since his conservative government came to power last year, including scrapping a carbon tax introduced by the previous Labor government.
His treasurer, Joe Hockey, drew derision earlier this week when he told a reporter that claims Australia is one of the dirtiest countries were “absolutely ridiculous”. Yet data shows Australia is the developed world’s highest carbon emitter per capita.
“The problem for Australia is that the rest of the world is now moving forward,” Mark Butler, member of parliament and environment spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, told the Reuters Global Climate Change Summit.
Australia’s stance, particularly attempts by the government to cut the country’s renewable energy target, would have a “devastating impact” on investment in Australia’s sustainable power generation industry, he said.
“The U.S. and China in particular seem determined to do everything they can to ... sign an ambitious global agreement,” Butler said.
“Australia really does run the risk of being left in the room with Canada ... and a pretty small group of nations that stubbornly hold out on participating in a broad process, and that’s going to be politically very damaging for Australia.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to repeated telephone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
The United States and several European countries have pressured Australia to put climate change on the G20 Summit agenda, but Abbott has repeatedly said the issue does not fit the meeting’s economic focus - a stance supported by Canada.
“The focus of the G20 will overwhelmingly be our economic security, our financial stabilization, the importance of private sector-led growth,” Abbott told reporters earlier this year.
He has agreed to put energy efficiency on the agenda following discussions with U.S. president Barack Obama. Whether other countries hijack sessions to cover climate change or talk in the corridors remains to be seen.
The United States says climate change is inextricably intertwined with economic and financial issues such as those highlighted by Abbott.
Shaun Donovan, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told the Reuters summit that combating climate change was imperative for fiscal reasons.
Speaking in Washington, Donovan said the cost of climate change-related events on the federal budget is enormous.
Among other incidences, he noted a drought in the United States in 2012 that was the most severe since the 1930s, and the roughly $65 billion spent after Hurricane Sandy struck in the same year.
In Australia, climate change is a major threat to food security in a country that has talked about becoming a “food bowl” for Asia. It also complicates a government plan to increase agricultural production to meet an expected doubling in global food demand by 2050.
As the only developed nation dominated by an arid climate, Australia faces more variability in rainfall, prolonged droughts and a greater incidence of extreme weather events, the country’s flagship scientific body CSIRO said.
“As a country that’s very, very vulnerable in an ecosystem sense to climate change, we have to be seen to do our part because we expect relatively poorer countries like China and much poorer countries like India to do something as well,” Labor’s Butler said.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Environment at a Glance 2013 report found Australia had the highest per-capita emissions among developed nations, emitting nearly 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person in 2010.
Furthermore, a report last month from consultancy PwC found that major economies are falling behind every year in terms of meeting the rate of carbon emission reductions needed to stop temperatures rising more than 2 degrees this century.
Against that backdrop, Abbott in July repealed a tax on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions for its 350 biggest companies, saying the scheme was too costly while achieving little in terms of emission cuts.
He also cut funding to the CSIRO and abolished the independent Climate Commission, a body created by the previous government to provide public information on the effects of global warming.
The government is now negotiating with the opposition to cut Australia’s renewable energy target (RET). Electricity use has fallen in the past five years because of rising bills and cheaper renewable energy options such as rooftop solar. That, the government says, renders outdated an RET of 20 percent of projected energy use in 2020.
Changing the target, however, would have a “devastating impact,” said Labor’s Butler. “It would largely kill any chance of significant new investment.”
Australian Climate Change Minister Greg Hunt initially accepted an invitation to the Reuters summit, but pulled out citing other engagements.
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Additional reporting by Byron Kaye in SYDNEY and Valerie Volcovici in LONDON; Editing by Christopher Cushing