Scott Morrison has pushed back at growing demands by conservatives, inside and outside his party, to abandon the Paris climate change targets by arguing such a move could lessen Australia’s influence in the Asia-Pacific.
With conservative MPs, as well as radio 2GB shock jock Alan Jones, all demanding on Tuesday that Australia follow US President Donald Trump and dump the commitment, which Tony Abbott made as prime minister, Mr Morrison said there were strategic reasons behind his decision.
“I have to consider not just the issues here,” he told Jones, who was influential in the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.
“In the Pacific, this is an issue which is incredibly important. In the Pacific, this issue dominates their thinking and agenda. Now, the Pacific is one of the most strategic areas of influence in our world today.”
At last week’s Pacific Islands Forum, Pacific nations, which are also being wooed by China and which are most at risk from rising sea levels, made their objection known to Australia walking away from Paris. Australia is regarded as a pariah by some nations because of its lack of leadership on climate change.
The government has also argued that if it walked away from the Paris targets, other international repercussions would include the collapse of any free trade deal with the European Union.
As Mr Morrison fended off Jones, the climate rebels in his ranks continued to agitate. Mr Abbott, who has become a member of the Coalition’s backbench energy and environment committee, called for the immediate scrapping of the Renewable Energy Target. Under the RET, subsidies for renewable energy will peak in 2020 and then phase out in 2030. Energy Minister Angus Taylor, himself a critic of the RET, says the scheme cannot be wound up early given the level of investment already committed and the fact it was winding down any way.
Committee chair Craig Kelly, who led the backbench criticism of the now scrapped National Energy Guarantee, also took issue with the Paris climate targets, which involve an emissions reduction of 26 per cent to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. To try to appease the rebels, Mr Morrison has promised not to legislate to force any sector of the economy to reach the targets. He claims that under business as usual, Australia will reach the target “in a canter” without any impact on power prices.
He also took a shot at Jones who is demanding cheap energy prices and complaining about the cost to industry and agriculture, but has led the campaign against the extraction of coal seam gas in NSW.
“That’s why we need more gas, whether it’s in NSW, Victoria or anywhere else,” Mr Morrison said.
Executives from the gas industry, who last year were threatened with export controls of they did not redirect more fuel for domestic use, will be in Canberra on Wednesday for meetings with Resources Minister Matt Canavan. They have also insisted the longer-term solution to the gas crisis requires the extraction of onshore gas on the east coast.
On Wednesday, former Liberal leader John Hewson will release the annual Climate of the Nation report by the Australia Institute think tank. It finds 73 per cent of voters are concerned about climate change, up from 66 per cent last year.
Just over half (53 per cent) believe governments are not doing enough to combat it while 20 per cent support withdrawing from Paris.
“The public wants lower prices and action on climate change,” said the institute’s Ben Oquist.
The abandonment of the NEG has left the government without an energy policy other than series of planned interventions in the market to force down prices. The Australian Financial Review reported on Tuesday that the renewed uncertainty caused by the instability has helped push up futures prices. As well, the claimed $150-a-year average household saving from the NEG has also evaporated.
The government disputed the claims, saying the price increase was due more to an increase in the gas price and other factors related to the drought.
Labor is pledging to take a energy policy to the election similar to the NEG but will consult stakeholders first.