Australia-China environmental cooperation in a hyperconnected world

By Nengye Liu, Director, Centre for Environmental Law – Macquarie University

Geopolitical tensions between China and the West, including Australia, are jeopardising the cooperation and collaboration essential to address existential environmental threats such as climate change and species extinction, writes Nengye Liu.

Like it or not, we live in a hyperconnected world. Inextricable planetary-scale social, economic and environmental links inevitably create complex feedback loops across global human-nature systems. In October 2021, China hosted, for the first time, the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in the city of Kunming, Yunnan Province. The Kunming Declaration, adopted by the international community during the Phase I of the CBD COP15, acknowledged that the world is facing “unprecedented and interrelated crises of biodiversity loss, climate change, land degradation and desertification, ocean degradation, and pollution, and increased risks to human health and food security, pose an existential threat to our society, our culture, our prosperity and our planet.” The basic message, reiterated by scientists for years, such as in the IPBES Global Assessment 2019 and IPCC Six Assessment Report 2021, is that our planet is in profound environmental crisis due to unsustainable human activities. In order to revert this situation towards a thriving planet for people and nature, collective efforts from all countries, including Australia and China are required.

Ironically, in such a hyperconnected world, meaningful and substantive connection between Australia and China has declined over the past five years. This is due to the vortex of decay in Australia-China relations. The Australia-China Strategic Economic Dialogue has not been held since 2017 and was “indefinitely suspended” by the Chinese Government in 2021. The Chinese Icebreaker, that used to call in to Hobart (its major supply hub) on its way to Antarctica, was last seen in Australia in 2019. The Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research, a highly productive climate research initiative between CSIRO and Qingdao National Marine Laboratory Centre, is closed in 2022 amid fears surrounding its potential for military use. Some in Australia may favorably talk about this deterioration of bilateral relations: “Let it be, given that Communist China is a significant threat to Australia’s security”. While some in China may respond: “Australia has no sovereignty. It is merely a lackey of the United States, which has a grand strategy to contain the rise of China.” Indeed, within both Australia and China, there are strong political voices and forces that have been trying to sever connections between the two countries. As a Chinese Australian academic, coming across foreign interference and espionage media pieces from both countries on a monthly, if not weekly, basis in recent years, I have also sadly become very cautious in contacting my colleagues in China. For example, for my research, I am keen to understand the legislative process surrounding development of China’s Antarctic Activities and Environmental Protection Law. These days I just have to wait for the public announcement then study the text, rather than actively interview colleagues who are involved in the drafting process.

Nevertheless, maintaining dialogue, cooperation and collaboration is essential to address existential threats of global environmental crisis such as climate change and extinction. Moreover, when it comes to bilateral relations between Australia and China, connections preserve bridges for better future relations, when the political environment, hopefully, eventually changes. For example, Australia signed the China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement in 1986. The treaty has facilitated protection of migratory birds for over three decades. Some species have their habitat in both countries, requiring an exchange of information and international collaboration to conduct successful conservation measures. This could have been the case for the protection of the Southern Ocean in the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). However, due to the spillover of geopolitical tension between China and the West, in particular with the United States and Australia, the CCAMLR Annual Meeting has become confrontational, rather than collaborative in recent years.

Bushfire smoke and ash over Sydney's Circular Quay
The 2015 Paris Agreement must be implemented effectively through concrete domestic measures on climate change, writes Nengye Liu. Image credit: Shutterstock.

So, following the 21 May election, where can the Federal Government — either Coalition or Labor — do better to facilitate Australia-China environmental cooperation? Fundamentally, the Australian Government ought to treat climate change seriously and take concrete domestic measures to effectively implement the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even though the geopolitical tension between China and the West is increasing, there are still opportunities for meaningful collaboration to address shared concerns. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China promised to become carbon neutral before 2060 ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26, Glasgow) in November 2021. There are concrete steps in this carbon neutrality plan. The Biden Administration, while maintaining most of Trump Administration’s China Policy to compete with China, did restart substantial dialogue and cooperation with China on combating climate change.

John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy on Climate, visited Tianjin in April 2021 and concluded the US-China Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis. This is further elaborated by the US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s – a political milestone to commit to cooperate on reduction of greenhouse gases emissions, clean energy transition, a circular economy, and carbon capture technology. This kind of political statement, though not legally binding, is highly important for maintaining connections between the United States and China. This could be a precious opportunity to leave the door open to the West for Chinese officials, companies, academics, NGOs and youth in an era when China has become more and more inward-looking under an increasingly Leninist regime.

Unfortunately, Australia is now categorised by The Green Future Index Rankings for 2022 as a climate “laggard” on par with Saudi Arabia due to its “slow and uneven progress or commitment toward building a green future”. The last Australia-China Statement on Climate Change dates back to 2007 when Kevin Rudd was the Prime Minister. Building upon enhanced climate measures domestically, the new Government could follow the Biden Administration to resume collaboration with China in areas of coal mine methane recovery, energy efficiency and climate change science, as mentioned in the 2007 Joint Statement.

Ultimately, we must never shut the door for meaningful and substantive connections between countries, which is absolutely necessary for solving the problems we face together. That is my hope not only for the new Federal Government, but also the Chinese Central Government following the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Community Party in the second half of 2022.

Associate Professor Nengye Liu is Director, Centre for Environmental Law, Macquarie University. He would like to thank Dr Michelle Lim, Senior Lecturer in Law, Macquarie University, for her insightful discussions and valuable edits on an earlier version of the piece.

Banner image: Shanghai skyline covered in smog at sunrise. Credit: Shutterstock.

This article was contributed as part of an Asialink Insights series on the China policy challenge facing Australia, 'China: the road ahead'.