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Australia vs the environment

Protestors at a climate rally in Brisbane, Australia Protestors at a climate rally in Brisbane, Australia paintings / Shutterstock
09 Dec
Australia has been named the worst of the world’s industrial countries when comparing performance of tackling climate change, and has only been kept off the bottom of the rankings by Saudi Arabia

Both the Australian government and its Prime Minister Tony Abbott have been public critics of international efforts to heed warnings on climate change and to curb global greenhouse emissions – most noticeably by cutting Australia’s domestic carbon tax. But even so, Australia has had a poor year with regards to climate change prevention efforts, according to the 2015 Climate Change Performance Index by NGOs Germanwatch and CAN Europe. Abbott and his compatriots ranked just 60th out of 61 countries on the report, and were joined in the bottom five by Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Iran.

The Index measures five different categories: emissions levels, emissions development, renewable energy, efficiency and policy. For the third year in a row, Denmark was at the top of the rankings, followed by Sweden, the UK, Portugal, and Cyprus.

Notably, the top three places in the Index remain empty, highlighting that ‘no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change’. The report does highlight, however, that for the first time, Denmark and Sweden both ‘surpassed their benchmark for the winner’s podium. At least for now, these countries are doing their share to keep the world below 2°C warming. However, since one year does not make a trend, we will have to see what happens in the future to be sure that this development is not due to short-term weather conditions or other fluctuations. But, if this promising development continues throughout the next years, these countries may be rewarded with the first and second places of the Index’.

climate-performance WEBClimate Change Performance Index World Map 2015. Image courtesy of Germanwatch

The UN Emissions Gap report, published in November 2014, named Australia as one of four countries set to miss their 2020 emissions targets based on current trends (the others being the USA, Canada and Mexico). The report states ‘Australia had been on track to meet its pledge in part through its carbon pricing mechanism, but this mechanism was abolished on 1 July 2014’, meaning that cutting the tax now ‘results in an increase in projected emissions for 2020’.

Unfortunately for Tony Abbott, it’s the poor performance of Australia (having come 57th on the 2014 index) which has caught international attention. The report notes the ‘new conservative Australian government has apparently made good on last year’s announcement and reversed the climate policies [the carbon tax] previously in effect. As a result, the country lost a further 21 positions in the policy evaluation compared to last year, thus replacing Canada as the worst performing industrial country’. Here are five of the Abbott government’s worst environmental stances:


“Let’s have no demonisation of coal. Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world”

– Tony Abbott, October 2014

At the opening of the Caval Ridge Mine in Central Queensland, Abbott pledged support to the coal industry, stating that coal in Australia had ‘a big future’.

“As the world’s largest producer of coal, I’d like to stand up for coal”

– Tony Abbott, November 2014

With world leaders gathering in Brisbane for the latest round of G20 talks, Abbott chose not to include climate change on the agenda for discussion, meaning it was only included at the last minute at the insistence of US President Barack Obama. However, Abbott still managed to express his support for coal in his opening speech, and for a long time refused requests by other developed countries for Australia to join them in pledging money to the Green Climate Fund, only doing so much later after domestic and international pressure.


“We have quite enough national parks, we have quite enough locked-up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked-up forest. When I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don’t see people who are environmental bandits, I see people who are the ultimate conservationists”

– Tony Abbott, March 2014

Speaking at a forest industry dinner in Canberra, Abbott attacked the four per cent of Australia’s land mass which is set aside for national parks. He pledged to strip World Heritage listing from 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest, which he claims is restricting the growth of the state’s timber industry.


“The argument is absolute crap. However, the politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger”

– Tony Abbott, October 2009

“I don't think we can say that the science is settled here. There is no doubt that we should do our best to rest lightly on the planet and there is no doubt that we should do our best to emit as few waste products as possible, but, having said that, whether carbon dioxide is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be is not yet proven”

– Tony Abbott, March 2011

Despite his assurances that he was questioning the decision to introduce a carbon tax because of it’s effectiveness, not whether it was necessary or not, his repeated questioning of the results of climate scientists during his bid for Liberal leader, and during his years as opposition leader to the government, led to him being labelled a ‘climate change denier’ by Australia’s Labor government.


“We do not want to lock up our oceans. We know that the biggest supporter of environmentally-responsible fishing practices is the fishing industry – because they do not want to harm the very environment that is providing them with a living”

– Tony Abbott, August 2013

In a reversal of policies enacted by the previous government, Abbott promised to halt plans for future marine sanctuaries in Australia’s oceans, and threw his support behind the Australian fishing industry. The previous government had planned to protect more than 2.3 million sq km of ocean in the form of marine sanctuaries.


“It would send a message around the world that even if you meet all of the criteria set out by the world heritage committee, there is still a risk that they will place an area on the in-danger list. It would have significant implications for Australia but it would also set a very dangerous precedent for countries who don’t have the opportunity to take the action that Australia has. Every country that has an environmental icon that activists seize upon would be at risk”

– Julie Bishop, December 2014 

With UNESCO considering whether to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef to being ‘in danger’, Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, lobbied other countries not to let the iconic national site – a key attraction for tourists to Australia – be downgraded. The reef, covering an area of 348,000 square kilometres, has lost half its coral cover in the past 30 years, while UNESCO has also raised concerns related to ‘planned coastal developments, including development of ports and liquefied natural gas facilities’.

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