It’s Time for Australia to Lead on Climate

Australia should match the commitments and ambition of its allies, says its former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

By Hon Malcolm Turnbull AC

April 13, 2021

For more than a decade now, framing and maintaining an effective response to global warming has been trapped in a political stalemate, brutally toxic even by Australian standards.

As in the United States, global warming has become for too many a matter of belief or identity, instead of simply a matter of physics. While this reality denialism, for that is what is, has been more consequential in the United States, the causes are very similar.

A combination of vested fossil fuel interests, right wing media, largely owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the populist right of politics have served to block effective action.

It is, perhaps, one of the British Conservative Party’s greatest achievements that it did not fall prey to this madness. As a consequence, action to address climate change has been more or less bipartisan in the UK.

Having lost my job as Australia’s Liberal Party leader twice over this issue, I am perhaps more keenly aware than most of the local political tensions. Murdoch’s dominant media presence in Australia remains the single largest obstacle to any coherent national policy that integrates climate and energy policy.

Of course, consigning responses to global warming to the craziness of culture wars may work out in terms of domestic politics. But it overlooks the fact that the application of the laws of physics are not subject to the will of parties or parliaments.

The lack of coherence or ambition in Australia’s climate policy does not just puzzle Australians. The massive bushfires of 2019-20 burned out an area about the size of England – over 12 million hectares. Billions of animals were killed. For days our capitals had the worst air quality in the world, and thousands of Australians huddled in midday darkness on beaches while they waited for the navy to evacuate them from the infernos that surrounded seaside holiday towns.

It looked like the end of the world. It was, perhaps, a preview of how it will end.

Of course the fires were quickly overtaken by the COVID pandemic. And once again the same people who denied the reality of global warming were quick to dismiss COVID as no worse than the flu, masks an assault on human rights and social distancing orders the harbinger of a new totalitarianism. As it turned out, biology is no more susceptible to Fox News hectoring than is physics.

The management of the pandemic has been a test for all of us; of character, competence and capability. At any given time, most countries are grappling with similar issues. But it is very rare that every nation in the world is faced with the same problem and at the same time. It has been rather like an old-fashioned examination where the rows of anxious students wait, pens poised, for the invigilator to check her watch and say “You have three hours, start writing.”

In this global COVID exam it is very clear which nations did best. They were the ones who trusted and acted upon the science and whose citizens trusted their governments when they did so. Those who politicised the response did worst – the United States and Brazil. Those who waited to impose, or inconsistently enforced, quarantines and mask wearing similarly did badly – the United Kingdom and most of Europe.

Australia handled the pandemic relatively well, but it must be noted that the heavy lifting in terms of quarantine, social distancing and testing was done by the State and Territory Governments. The federal Government took a back seat on public health and its principal contribution was a massive financial stimulus to offset the widespread job and business losses from lockdowns and the disruption that followed.

But now, while we hope that by relying on medical science we are turning the corner on COVID, there is no sign that this has resulted in any change to the approach to global warming in Australia, at least at the national level.

A year after the bushfires, and nine months into the pandemic, the Australian Government refused to increase its nationally defined contribution (“NDC”) towards reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This resulted in Australia being refused a speaking role at a climate summit at which other nations presented higher ambitions. At the last COP in Madrid in 2020, Australia joined with Saudi Arabia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil to block greater action.

With President Biden in the White House and John Kerry, the architect of the Paris Climate Treaty, as his Climate Envoy, Australia now finds itself out of step not just with Boris Johnson’s Britain, or the Europeans but with its great and powerful American ally.

Just as culture war debates must yield to the realities of biology and physics, so must domestic political battles yield to the reality of geopolitics.

With Trump in the White House, there was at least another climate change denier at the G7, somebody you could rely on to call out the joys of coal and the warmist follies of wind turbines and solar panels.

But it’s not just the vibe that is different. The EU buys $20 billion of goods and services from Australia each year and the bloc is developing plans for a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism which would unilaterally impose a tax on imports from countries that do not have a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The US Democrats are also considering carbon taxes at the frontier. While these appear novel in trade terms, they are extremely appealing to politicians. They can be justified by saving the planet – so much more idealistic than old-fashioned protectionist arguments of defending local jobs and businesses.

Two thirds of Australian exports are bought by nations with mid-century ‘net zero’ emissions targets, including 62% of our coal and iron ore exports,[1]. If we do not convincingly raise our climate ambitions, we will be particularly vulnerable to these carbon tariffs.

While Australia has suffered, and will continue to suffer, the consequences of a hotter drier climate, the harshest toll will be paid by developing countries including many in our own region. One of the most bitter injustices of the climate crisis is that the countries which have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. None more so than the island nations of the Pacific. These are Australia’s neighbours, developing countries to whom we have been the largest aid donor and closest economic partner for many years. But right now, our relationships are being tested by competition from China. Pacific leaders, such as Fiji’s PM Bainimarama, are asking how they can trust Australia if it does so little to stop the global warming that threatens the existence of so many island nations.

While Australia is a big producer, consumer and exporter of coal and gas, it is also blessed with vast solar and wind resources. As renewables replace coal-fired power we are not only seeing emissions reduce, but electricity prices decline. Storage projects, like the huge Snowy Hydro 2.0 commenced by my Government, will make these renewables reliable.

In fact, Australia has the capacity to move to zero emissions and lower cost electricity, with less difficulty than many other countries, like the UK, that are further advanced in, and far more committed to, decarbonisation.

So what is to be done?

First we must commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest and ideally earlier. Technological advances mean this can be achieved with cheaper electricity, higher levels of energy security and stronger economic growth. Our energy policies should be guided by engineering and economics rather than ideology and idiocy.

Second, we should seek to lead in every relevant technology. Whether it is solar panels, batteries, pumped storage or green hydrogen, Australian scientists have made world-leading contributions. A spirit of innovation and science must be restored and led with enthusiasm. Rather than lamenting the demise of coal, we should be ensuring that cheap, renewable energy replaces fossil fuels and provides well paid jobs in energy-intensive industries. We have the best solar radiation and highest capacity onshore wind in the world. The only barrier to harnessing it is a lack of imagination and confidence.

I have been helping Andrew Forrest, the founder of iron ore giant Fortescue Metals Group, in his efforts to build the world’s largest green hydrogen energy company. Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. If it is produced by using renewable electricity to split water, then it is “green hydrogen”. When it is burned and recombined with oxygen to produce energy, the only by-product is water.

Hydrogen offers the prospect of zero-emission fuel for transport, for energy storage, even for making steel without coal. But it needs vast amounts of cheap renewable energy and Australia’s north is ideally suited to provide it.

Equally, Australia is endowed with all of the cobalt, nickel, lithium and other metals required for batteries. President Biden has demanded a review of the USA’s supply chains in these sectors, worried that China is already dominant. Australia offers a potential solution, with resources supplied by a stable, democratic nation. That places us in a key geostrategic position for future global prosperity, but we must invest and work with our allies to make it happen.

Third we should review and increase our NDC for 2030. Our commitment made in Paris in 2015 is now embarrassingly easy to achieve. The challenge is not to set the lowest possible bar so that surmounting it is a breeze, but rather to reach to a higher goal and set an example. Lead the pack rather than be a grumbling laggard lurking in the slipstream of other nations who take their responsibilities more seriously.

Fourth, and above all, Australia must lead. Whatever Murdoch’s editors may say, we should match our ingenuity and our national endowment with the ‘can do’ enthusiasm that allows us to support, emulate and surpass our friends, not just in North America and Europe, but in our own region. This is no time to dawdle disagreeably, as Trumpian exiles in the Antipodes.

Hon Malcolm Turnbull served as Australia’s Prime Minister between 2015 and 2018.


[1] H.Guinness et al (2020), “Powering the next boom: Priorities for energy reform in the coming decade”. Blueprint Institute.