By Brandon Taylor

From anyone with a hint of environmentalism in their blood one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when Tony Abbott stepped down from his post as Australian Prime Minister.  Hopes were lifted as climate change realist Malcolm Turnbull rose to the occasion, but are already fading to disappointment as he backpedals away from his former stance in opposition to climate change.

Having supported the feasibility of making Australia a 100% renewable energy nation in 2010 and decrying Australia’s Direct Action policy on climate change as “fiscal recklessness on a grand scale,” Turnbull is known as a champion for change.  He has, however, softened from advising a true transition away from fossil fuels to less holistic tactics like using clean coal and planting trees. Activists were aghast when they heard the new poster boy for fighting climate change chant that there is “a strong moral case” for supporting coal exports and the building of coal mines. The streak of pragmatic escapism may be a skin-deep effort to widen his appeal as PM, but it has cost him some public confidence and has cost the environment a staunch supporter.

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) coming up in November (and droughts hitting Australia harder than ever) it could easily be said that both Turnbull and Australia have some ground to make up on the climate change front.

This will require a two-pronged approach: on one hand, pushing for the full implementation of international environmental standards and increasing the share of renewables in the country’s power mix, but on the other hand, deploying foreign policy that convinces Australia’s neighbours to match its environmental efforts.

As editor for Malaysian environmental news website Clean Malaysia, I’ve been surprised at how strong the ties between Kuala Lumpur and Australia have become.  Malaysia is now Australia’s second-largest trading partner in ASEAN, and total merchandise trade between Australia and Malaysia in 2014 was A$17.5 billion.  A 2007 report by the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade noted that the relationship between Australia and Malaysia has evolved from one of distant support to “one of wide-ranging and extensive collaboration across all fields” – fact laid bare by the joint efforts for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and Australia’s push for prosecuting the parties responsible for the downing of MH17.

This burgeoning relationship offers great potential for joint progress on the environmental front as well.  Interestingly enough, that opportunity lies within an industry that has been a source of financial tension between the two countries – the bauxite trade. 

Bauxite extraction, its smelting into aluminium and its export make up a sizeable chunk of Australia’s GDP, but the country has been losing its edge to Malaysia of late.  When Indonesia backed out as a major supplier of bauxite to China, Malaysia filled the demand gap with an explosion of unregulated and often illegal mining activity.  It boosted exports from zero to 20 million tonnes in one year, and the resulting market influx of bauxite ore has caused prices for raw bauxite to drop from a high of $US73.80 per tonne in May 2014 to a low of $US50 as of August.

What has destabilized the world’s bauxite industry has also caused environmental disaster in Malaysia.  Due to poor health and safety standards, the powdery form in which Malaysia’s low-quality bauxite deposits are extracted is being spread across the countryside by wind, rain and poorly-contained ground transportation.  Laden with heavy metals, arsenic and carcinogens, this red dust is causing cancer risks for locals while threatening food security and ecosystem stability through water contamination far beyond acceptable limits.

While Malaysia has been slowly moving forward with some regulations to curb the illegal industry, Turnbull should press the government to accelerate efforts.  The vast majority of Australian mining operations adhere to rigorous environmental standards before, during and after mining activity.  This puts Australia in a position to recommend and advise Malaysia, which – if operating more sustainably – would cease to edge out Australia’s industry with its fast-and-loose exports.

As a result, Turnbull should urge Malaysia to submit its COP21 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).  This would bolster Malaysia’s green policy making and would force the government to take steps to limit the environmental impact of its unsustainable bauxite mining industry. What’s more, with the TPP and its environmental chapter soon coming into force, Malaysia’s inaction exposes it to severe losses. The TPP threatens non-compliant countries with economic sanctions, which Turnbull could use to grease the wheels of change in Malaysia.

By continuously raising environmental standards for Australia’s bauxite industry and pressuring Malaysia to do the same, Turnbull could make strides towards fighting climate change, help stabilize the bauxite industry and improve relations with an increasingly crucial trading partner.

Such a course of action would be both in Australia’s and in Malaysia’s interest.  Fighting climate change requires effort from all sides – otherwise, the incentives to move towards more environmentally responsible manufacturing processes simply will not exist.  Bauxite mining is just one example, but one that encompasses perfectly the delicacy of fighting climate change. Turnbull’s commitments should therefore not be limited to Australia’s internal politics but should go a step farther and act as vector of change in SE Asia and Oceania.  After all, if we all don’t get on board to fight climate change, we are likely to see bad practices move to other nations with more lax environmental standards – this could very well happen if Australia doesn’t ensure its regional neighbours enforce strict environmental regulations and make their industries sustainable.


Image courtesy of (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons