Late last year, more than 100 former diplomats and officials called for a new Australian foreign policy – with climate action at the center – to help cement Australia’s future in a rapidly changing world. net zero emissions.
Failing to act on climate change, they argued, would erode our national interests and our international influence. Australia’s allies, partners and competitors would penalize us for not doing our part. Whoever wins the federal election, the next Australian government must heed this advice.
There is a saying that “all politics is local”. But Australia’s climate policy is driven as much by the realities of a warming planet and seismic shifts in global energy markets as it is by fringe voters in Queensland.
Managing the transition to a net-zero economy must be a priority task for the next government. Our strategic and economic success depends on it.
How did we come here?
In recent times, Australian foreign policy has promoted the nation as an energy superpower – a major supplier of coal and gas to Asia. Reducing emissions has been a secondary objective, as Australia’s diplomatic apparatus is tasked with promoting fossil fuel exports.
This was not always the case. When scientific consensus on global warming emerged in the late 1980s, the Hawke Labor government appointed an environmental ambassador to promote climate action and supported ambitious national emissions reduction targets.
However, by the mid-1990s – under the influence of a powerful fossil fuel lobby and following a national recession – the Keating government was increasingly concerned about the potential economic costs of climate action. The Howard government that followed decided that taking serious climate action was not in Australia’s interest
The argument then, as it is now, was that the Australian economy is dependent on fossil fuels and that reducing emissions would cost us relatively more than other countries.
So since then, rather than act on climate change, Australia has sought to minimize emissions reduction obligations while increasing coal and gas exports.
Today, Australia has one of the lowest 2030 emissions targets in the developed world. At last year’s global climate talks in Glasgow, Australia refused to join other developed countries in boosting its ambition.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes Australia as an opponent of climate action. He is right. Australia is among a small, isolated group of countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, that are resisting global efforts to cut emissions.
It is no coincidence that Australia is also the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.
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The world is changing around us
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked his Nationals colleagues for support for a goal of net zero by 2050 last year, he urged them to come to terms with economic reality. The world is going to net zero. And climate action is now a key pillar of the Western alliance, and therefore key for Australia for national security reasons.
Morrison’s arguments show how the world has changed since he came to power in August 2018.
Australia’s latest foreign policy white paper, published in 2017, predicted strong global growth in demand for fossil fuels. These predictions turned out to be wrong.
Instead, Australia’s main destination markets, such as Japan, China and South Korea, are phasing out fossil fuels. In the past two years alone, more than 100 countries, representing around 90% of the global economy, have committed to net zero emissions.
This mega-trend has fundamentally changed Australia’s economic outlook.
The climate has also moved to the center of global geopolitics. Major powers are integrating climate into defense and strategic planning, foreign policy, diplomacy and statecraft.
The European Union will start next year to impose border costs on imports from countries that are not doing enough to reduce emissions, a move that could potentially squeeze 12.5 billion Australian dollars from the Australian economy each year. . G7 countries are planning a “climate club” to impose costs on countries that fail to meet common climate policy standards.
In the United States, a new Indo-Pacific strategy signals an intention to pressure countries like Australia to set a stronger 2030 target. This is partly so that the United States and its allies work together to pressure China to reduce its emissions.
Security mismatch in the Pacific
The recent security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China may demonstrate that Australia has yet to integrate climate action into its own art of governing.
For decades, Pacific island countries – including the Solomon Islands – have argued that climate change is their number one security threat, especially to atoll island states that face flooding from rising seas.
But these concerns are not reflected in Australia’s current efforts to engage more closely with the Pacific. The recent Pacific Step Up strategy is largely driven by fears that China could take advantage of infrastructure loans to establish a military base in the region.
A former Australian intelligence chief, Nick Warner, said Australia’s stance on climate had “undermined our position in the Pacific” – a view shared by former Australian high commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Peter Hooton.
The lesson is clear. In a warming global climate policy is foreign police.
Australia, a clean energy superpower
Our foreign policy needs to be revamped to reposition Australia as a clean energy superpower and seize the economic opportunities that will arise.
As the sunniest and windiest inhabited continent on earth, Australia has world-class renewable energy resources and enviable reserves of minerals needed for the electric vehicles, batteries and wind turbines of the future.
Australia is well placed to export zero-emission electricity to growing economies in Asia. Our renewable energy advantage also means we can competitively produce carbon-free versions of the products the world urgently needs: steel, aluminum, hydrogen and fertilizers.
The Business Council of Australia estimates that clean export opportunities could generate 395,000 jobs by 2040. With the right policy framework, Australia could develop a new clean energy export mix worth 333 billion Australian dollars each year, almost triple the value of existing fossil fuel exports.
Read more: How can Indigenous communities participate in New South Wales’ renewable energy transition?
A big task for the next government
Whichever party wins the May 21 election should reposition Australia as a global climate leader. This will require negotiation between national constituencies that resist change and an international context that is changing nonetheless.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian diplomatic network should be responsible for promoting climate action. And a climate change ambassador should be appointed – separate from the current environmental ambassador.
Australia is also expected to bid to host the annual UN climate summit and co-host UN talks with Pacific island states.
Above all, the next government must strengthen Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target ahead of global climate talks in Egypt in November. We should at least match our major allies and commit to halving emissions this decade. Failure to do so will only increase diplomatic and economic costs.
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