Under climate fire, Australian seeking OECD top job targets carbon-neutral world

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 9 March 2021 13:00 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Former Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann attends a session at the 50th World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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Heads of green groups and academic institutions have urged the economic policy body not to pick Mathias Cormann, saying he has a poor record on climate policy

* Mathias Cormann and Cecilia Malmström both hope to lead the OECD

* Cormann says he will help nations achieve net-zero emissions

* Charities urge OECD not to select Cormann, citing climate record

By Michael Taylor

March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A former Australian finance minister vying to become the new head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said he would pursue an "ambitious" and "global" approach to help nations become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Mathias Cormann, Australia's longest-serving finance minister until last year, is one of two candidates hoping to take over as OECD secretary-general from outgoing Angel Gurría.

But last week, the heads of about 30 Australian and global charities and research institutions signed a letter urging the Paris-based organisation to drop Cormann from the race, saying he had a public record of "thwarting effective climate action".

Australia's reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world's largest carbon-emitters per capita, and green groups have long lobbied the federal government to wean itself off fossil fuels, especially after devastating bushfires last year.

Canberra has invested in technology and clean energy in a bid to decarbonise the economy, but has yet to adopt a national policy of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Cormann told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that, if chosen to lead the OECD, he would work with others "to help countries around the world achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050".

"Action on climate change, to be effective, requires an ambitious, globally coordinated approach. That has always been my view," he said in emailed comments.

Chosen by its 37 member states, mainly wealthy nations, the global economic-policy body's new secretary-general will be decided this month and serve a five-year term starting June 1.

Cormann, who was born in Belgium and migrated to Australia in 1996, said the OECD must provide leadership on climate change, adding that the targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement were a foundation to build upon.

"I would work with member countries and partner organisations to deploy every policy and analytical capability available through the OECD to help economies around the world achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050," he said.

The OECD could help identify solutions that maximise emissions reductions in a way that is "economically responsible" and keeps energy affordable, he added.

But "different countries will have different means of contributing to the global emissions reduction effort," he noted.

"Australia ... is in a prime position to export clean energy to the world, for example through the development of a world-leading hydrogen industry," he added.

The European Union's former trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, is the other candidate for the OECD's top job, and if successful, she would be its first female head.

As EU commissioner, Malmström called on European states to be more ambitious on issues such as climate change and pushed for greater environmental safeguards in trade agreements.

Climate change is the "most urgent crisis for humanity", she said in media interviews last year.

CLIMATE ACTION 'BLOCKER'

According to the letter sent by charities to the OECD last week, between 2013 and 2020 when Cormann was Australia's finance minister, the government "persistently failed to take effective action to reduce emissions at home and has consistently acted as a blocker within international forums".

During this time, Canberra abolished the country's carbon pricing scheme, failed to commit to a net-zero emissions target, and maintained fossil fuel subsidies, it added.

Signatory Kelly O'Shanassy, CEO at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the next OECD chief would have "a significant influence on how the world tackles climate change, so it is imperative that position is held by a person who has a strong track record on climate policy and action and is up to the challenge".

David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and another signatory of the letter, said Cormann had been a leading figure in a government that repeatedly obstructed climate action and promoted the increased use of fossil fuels.

"The leader of an institution as powerful and influential as the OECD must be someone with strong convictions and a history of taking action on climate change, not blocking it," he said by email.

Read more:

Australia feels global, national heat for 2050 zero-emissions goal

Australia says it will hit 2030 emissions target without counting old carbon credits 

Climate Primer: Why is everyone talking about 'net zero'? 

(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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