Australian PM courts further solar controversy


Having allowed Australia to be part of the 14 nations to join negotiations on the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) in Geneva on Wednesday, sources close to the Prime Minister’s office have revealed that Tony Abbott is pushing for the issue’s removal from the forthcoming G20 Summit, to be held in Brisbane in November.

Australia’s PM has moved to remove climate change and environmental issues from the G20 agenda, arguing that such matters are not "economic issues" and should not crop up during discussions between the leaders of the world’s 20 strongest economies.

This week, 14 nations announced in Geneva that they would begin negotiations on the EGA, with the intention of bringing to an end the tit-for-tat trade tariffs that have marred the solar PV industry in recent years by liberalizing trade in environmental goods.

"Over the years the EU has been at a forefront in protecting the environment and fighting against climate change," said Karel de Gucht, EU Trade Commissioner, in Geneva this week. "This initiative is an excellent example of how trade policy can positively contribute to the global objective of sustainable development, i.e facilitating access to clean energy and rapid urbanization process."

The trade agreement could cover 54 products and impact trade worth a total of $1 trillion. If a "critical mass" of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) members agree to participate, then the EGA could be rolled-out on a global scale.

However, Abbott’s office has already moved to put the skids on such expansion, attempting to push such talks off the table at G20 as the government attempts to deflect attention on its own climate change policies, which one prominent U.K. Lord has this week described as "appalling" and "reckless".

Anti-renewable rhetoric

The Australian Prime Minister’s stance on environmental issues has caused consternation among some of the country’s chief trading partners, including the U.S. and EU, leading some politicians to wonder whether this year’s G20 will have any relevant impact on global policy making.

The EGA could, in fact, benefit Australia in many ways as it includes a number of bilateral free trade agreements that could help bolster the country’s renewable energy target (RET). Those nations signed up to the EGA account for 90% of the world trade in environmental goods, so Australia’s reluctance to play ball could harm trade in other areas, critics have claimed.

Abbott’s argument is that the RET increases energy prices in Australia, ignoring the argument that costly upgrades to Australia’s vast power infrastructure – underpinned by coal and gas – have been the catalyst for most price rises in recent years.

Critics at home have called Abbott’s thinly veiled anti-solar stance short-sighted and dangerous. John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Council, told the Sydney Morning Herald that "there is a conga-line of vested interests who stand against the incursion of solar and wind into the electric market," including miners, the gas industry, coal-fired generators, network operators, retail operators and state governments.

Meanwhile, Lord Deben, chairman of the independent U.K. Committee on Climate Change and a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, has accused Abbott of being more interested in advancing his own short-term political interests than dealing with global warming.

"Australia’s actions are appaling," Lord Deben said. "While the 66 countries that account for 88% of global emissions have passed laws to address global warming, Australia is repealing them. Australia’s carbon price was already working," said Deben, who issued a statement in response to the PM’s plan to axe the carbon price this week. "It was reducing emissions without any of the economic damage that people feared."

In 2013, Australia’s emissions fell 0.8% – the largest fall since records began in 1990. In the power sector, which is set to be the largest beneficiary of the carbon tax scrap, that fall has averaged 11% per year since the carbon price was introduced in 2012, according to Australian energy consultants Pitt & Sherry.