Australia has invited Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries to put their money into wind and solar farms Down Under as the new government in Canberra declares it is “open for business” on renewable power investments.
The move is part of what Greg Hunt, Australian environment minister, says is a “significant change in tone on renewable energy” after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seized the leadership of the ruling centre-right Liberal party in September from Tony Abbott.
Green power investments in Australia plunged after Mr Abbott took office in 2013. He once described the arguments behind climate change as “absolute crap” and, after taking office, scrapped plans for a carbon tax and said coal was “good for humanity”.
The ascension of Mr Turnbull, who once called Mr Abbott’s climate policies a “farce”, has raised green investors’ hopes of more support.
Mr Hunt, who was in Dubai for international environment talks last week, says he told Saudi and United Arab Emirates officials there, “If you have sovereign wealth funds that like to invest in new energy, you might want to look at Australia”.
“We now have a rock-solid platform,” he told the Financial Times in an interview in London.
While Australia’s financial incentives for renewables had not formally changed, policy consistency was crucial for long-term energy investments so the government’s assurances were “really important”, he said.
Mr Abbott’s departure is one of two significant political shifts in big fossil fuel-producing nations that have boosted hopes for the new global climate treaty due to be finalised in Paris next month.
The other came in October when Canadians voted for a new centre-left government led by Justin Trudeau.
Mr Trudeau claimed Canada became a “pariah” on climate change issues under Stephen Harper, his Conservative party predecessor, who pulled Canada out of the Kyoto protocol climate treaty in 2011.
In Australia, Mr Turnbull may struggle to meet the high expectations climate change campaigners have for his government.
Many government MPs would not have supported his leadership if it meant dramatically changing Mr Abbott’s central climate action plans, which environmental campaigners claim are far too weak.
“Some in the renewable energy industry do feel more buoyant with the current change of tone on renewable energy from the government,” said Erwin Jackson of the Climate Institute, an Australian think-tank.
But the prospect of a new clean energy boom remains a distant prospect unless more is done to replace old, inefficient coal-fired power plants, he said.
Mr Hunt, who was also environment minister in Mr Abbott’s government, confirmed there are no plans to introduce a carbon tax or cap and trade scheme.
Instead, the Turnbull government will stick to Mr Abbott’s flagship Direct Action climate plan, which awards grants to companies competing to cut their greenhouse gas emissions as cheaply as possible.
This had already led to “very significant” reductions in emissions, said Mr Hunt.
The government was also launching measures to cut carbon pollution further, he added, including new vehicle emissions standards, a national energy efficiency plan and steps to reduce ozone-depleting hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.
Still, Australia’s climate policies will be scrutinised at the Paris talks, where some countries want a new climate agreement to commit signatories to phasing out fossil fuel pollution over the course of this century, with sharp cuts in emissions by 2050.
Mr Hunt said that he would not rule out supporting such a plan but he was not in a position to say Australia would agree to it either.
Australia is also facing accusations that it is trying to water down plans to slash the billions of dollars that rich countries’ export credit agencies channel to coal power plants around the world.