Davos WEF
Davos WEF

Australian minister claims PM Scott Morrison has led 'historically unprecedented' bush fire effort

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits a fire damaged property on Kangaroo Island on January 8, 2020.
David Mariuz | Pool | Getty Images

The Australian prime minister has received praise for his leadership in tackling devastating bush fires that have flared for months.

Protestors marched across most of Australia's state capital cities earlier this month, calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison's resignation and slamming the government's stance on climate change.

Morrison has also been forced to apologize to Australians for initially refusing to cut short an overseas family holiday in the U.S. state of Hawaii while the bush fires raged. His approval rating has taken a huge hit amid the crisis.

Speaking to CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday, Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said in spite of the anger, the country's Prime Minister had "led a historically unprecedented national bush fire response effort."

Asked whether the crisis would provoke a change in the Australian government's environmental policies, Cormann said the bush fires and climate policies were "two different issues."

He added that Australia was ahead of the majority of countries when it came to addressing the climate crisis.

"We have a very ambitious climate change policy, we are absolutely committed to effective action on climate change," he said. "We are one of only a handful of countries around the world that will not just meet but exceed its emissions reduction targets agreed to in Kyoto by 2020."

VIDEO3:1103:11
Bush fires and climate policy 'two different issues': Australian minister

The Kyoto Protocol, first adopted in 1997, is an international treaty setting out greenhouse gas limitations for industrialized countries.

"Right now our focus is on the emergency response, getting on top of those fires," Cormann said, adding: "But once we are on the other side of all this there will be inquiries and processes to assist, how in the future a fire season of this intensity can be responded to in a better fashion."

Cormann claimed that Australia was also on track to beat the emissions reduction targets it had agreed to in the Paris Agreement — a landmark deal adopted in 2015 that saw nations sign up to a framework to prevent global temperatures rising by any more than 2 degrees Celsius. Australia has committed to reducing its 2005 emissions levels by 26% before 2030.

"We are a large continent with a small population, so considering the emissions reduction targets we've committed to on a per capita basis we will be more than halving emissions and indeed we will be reducing the emissions intensity in our economy by two-thirds," he said. "That is more ambitious than the U.K., than Canada, than New Zealand, than many other countries around the world."

However, in a report published in November, the U.N. noted Australian policymakers had done little in terms of designing policies to help deliver on its own projections.

"With the re-election of Australia's conservative Government in May, there has been no recent material change in Australian climate policy," the organization said, adding that its 2030 target for slashing emissions looked "challenging."

Meanwhile, the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last out of 61 countries when looking at climate policy.

No plans to scrap coal

Phasing out fossil fuels like coal is considered vital in order to meet the Paris Agreement's aim of keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned last year that coal "remains a major threat in relation to climate change."

But Cormann suggested on Thursday that Morrison's government had no plans to reduce Australia's production of coal.

"On a per capita basis we invest more than twice as much into renewable energy than Germany, than France, for example," Cormann told CNBC. "So we are absolutely focused on boosting renewable energy — right now 25% of our energy supplies in our national electricity market comes from renewables, by 2030 that will be 50%. But coal, not just in Australia but around the world, will continue to be an important source of base load power."

A U.N. report published in September found that Australia was the fifth biggest investor in renewable energy worldwide, spending $9.2 billion on renewables in 2018. China, the U.S. and Japan were the three biggest spenders. Germany, in eighth place, spent $6.3 billion on renewables capacity in 2018, while France, ranked 12th, spent $4.1 billion, according to the data.

Cormann claimed that some countries, like India, needed access to coal as a base load power source in order to boost the level of renewable energy in their grids.

"The question then becomes, in the context of global demand for coal, do you prefer us to use comparatively cleaner Australian coal with less ash content, less moisture, a higher energy intensity, or the comparatively dirtier coal from other sources?" he asked. "We would say using cleaner Australian coal actually helps reduce emissions compared to what the situation would be in the alternative."

Australia was the second biggest exporter of coal in 2018, according to data from the International Energy Agency. A December report from the country's Department of Industry, Innovation and Science claimed coal exports added 70 billion Australian dollars ($48 billion) to the country's economy last year.