Senator Cormann’s engagement came against the backdrop of a front-of-house war of words between US President Donald Trump and Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, at a forum which has been dominated by discussions of climate and sustainability.
Mr Trump called on participants to “reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of apocalypse”, while Ms Thunberg took the forum to task for “doing nothing”.
Senator Cormann called for cool heads to prevail. “It’s important to look at these things objectively, and assess them objectively so we can prepare our responses objectively,” he told a later panel specifically on Australia’s bushfire crisis.
“If we had a mature global conversation on this we wouldn’t be doing constant finger-pointing, we would actually be looking at how each country could best contribute given the natural attributes that respective countries have.”
Not every coal mine is a bad thing for the environment.
— Mathias Cormann, Finance Minister
Asked if he endorsed Mr Trump’s view that “this is not a time for pessimism, this is a time for optimism”, Senator Cormann said: “I’m not a commentator on President Trump’s beliefs. I was in the audience, I thought it was a great speech, a fantastic speech … about the economic achievements of his government.”
On the second panel, Senator Cormann was challenged by Australian artist Lynette Wallworth and a retired Australian firefighter in the audience about the Morrison government’s leadership on the issue.
He responded that Australia would perform better against its emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto and Paris climate agreements than the European Union, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
By 2030, on a per-capita basis it would halve emissions over the time period, and the reduction would be two-thirds if emissions were measured per unit of GDP output.
“We are guided by a desire to pursue policies that are environmentally effective and economically responsible and we believe we are doing our bit.”
‘Not every coal mine is bad’
He also defended Australia’s coal exports, saying they could make a contribution to reducing the path of greenhouse gas emissions.
“There is a global demand for coal, and if it’s not met by cleaner Australian coal it will be met by comparatively dirtier coal from other sources and the world environment will be worse off,” he said.
“Not every coal mine is a bad thing for the environment. When you have better quality coal compared to the alternative options that are available, you actually might be able to help the transition and provide better outcomes.”
He said a historical perspective on Australia’s current bushfires was required. “Yes, climate change is making things worse,” he said. “But we have also got to keep it in perspective. In a sense, Australia has always been a country that has suffered extreme weather events.”
British billionaire steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, who owns steel and renewable energy assets in Australia and is also at Davos, told The Australian Financial Review it didn’t matter if people’s perceptions of the bushfires were completely accurate.
“Was it exaggerated? Who cares – it makes the public aware of the problem. At least one positive out of this tragic situation is that everybody is talking about it – it will change people’s views.”