Climate diplomacy – it’s not too late for Australia

By Tanya Spisbah, Founder, Strategic Sustainability

US President Joe Biden has called a global summit on climate change over the next two days to energise countries to set more ambitious carbon reduction targets. Tanya Spisbah argues it offers Australia the last best opportunity to get on board for the sake of its international reputation and ability to reap the benefits of the new energy economy.

As 2020 was eclipsed by the COVID crisis and vaccine diplomacy, 2021 is emerging as the year of climate diplomacy. Consecutive and crippling natural disasters combined with a shuffle in global leadership has seen ambition in climate commitments take centre stage. Even strategic rivals, the US and China, have put differences aside by issuing a joint statement on climate action. The outcome of this tectonic shift in global policy will affect Australia’s relative strategic and economic position and its relevance in its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood and beyond.

Australia’s reluctance to take a lead on climate change and focus instead on its coal and gas exports was tolerated in the shadow of Trump-era nationalism. However, the election of US President Joe Biden has pushed climate back to the centre of global diplomacy: his Leaders’ Summit on Climate this week is both an opportunity to highlight Australia’s green economy credentials and a pressure point to start leading by example. Failure to show up on the global stage at this critical juncture is hurting Australia economically and reputationally and weakening our influence in the region.

PM Scott Morrison calls President Joe Biden to congratulate him on 2020 victory
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls US President Joe Biden to congratulate him on his victory in the 2020 US Presidential Election - November 12, 2020. Image credit: @scottmorrisonmp, Twitter.

Climate Diplomacy on the Global Stage

Biden has commanded a critical pivot toward climate diplomacy in 2021. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office was more than mere symbolism; Biden plans to announce the US’s ambitious 2030 targets as part of his Earth Day climate summit. The summit invites 40 world leaders, including Scott Morrison, to ensure net zero emissions are achieved by 2050, and the rise of average global temperature is limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. The summit will explore the benefits of the green economy as well as the economic and social costs that can be avoided by addressing climate change for what it is: an existential threat to humanity.

The summit aims to enlarge global ambition ahead of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change in November, where UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to encourage tougher commitments and float outcomes like carbon tariffs and counting exports in countries’ emissions tallies – a move Australia opposes as a major exporter of coal and gas.

Australia has already suffered for its reluctance on climate change. Last December, Johnson disinvited Morrison from his Climate Ambition Summit for failing to announce sufficiently bold emissions targets. Although Morrison shrugged this off, it was a demonstration of the real reputational risk of the government’s opposition to pricing mechanisms on carbon. The ramifications almost cost former finance minister Matthias Cormann the post of Secretary-General of the OECD.

Climate Change and the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is the fastest growing region on the planet. Accounting for two thirds of global trade, the Indo-Pacific in the 21st century is the global economic engine that the Trans-Atlantic was in the 20th century. However, with a greater share of the global economy comes a greater share of energy consumption – with China, the US, India, Russia and Japan the world’s top five emitters. While Australia has made much of emitting just ‘1.3 per cent’ of greenhouse gases, it remains a top 40 polluter globally, despite a low population and could be bumped to top five if accounting changes are made to include fossil fuel exports.

Biden has refreshed US engagement with the Indo-Pacific, injecting energy and status into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. Although unquestionably a tool for China-containment, the Quad was founded in response to the 2004 tsunami. Last month, Quad leaders issued ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ statement, in which climate change is recognised as a global priority and contains a commitment to form a Climate Working Group to strengthen climate action.

Biden’s climate diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific is effective. Indian Prime Minister Modi was one of the first to accept the invitation to today’s summit and tweeted last week during the Raisina Dialogue that there ‘is no Planet B’. Last Friday Biden issued a joint statement with Japanese Prime Minister Yohishide Suga, emphasising climate urgency and agreeing a Competitive and Resilience Partnership to ensure a ‘sustainable, inclusive, healthy, green global economic recovery’ from the COVID pandemic. Over the weekend, China and the US also issued a joint statement on climate, demonstrating a willingness to put divisive differences aside for the sake of the planet.

Biden and Suga
US President Joe Biden meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Washington, D.C., US - April 16, 2021. Image credit: @POTUS, Twitter. 

Japan and South Korea have pledged to meet net zero by 2050 and China by 2060. Emerging Asia is shifting away from coal: Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand are investing more heavily in renewable energy and the Philippines last year declared a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. Asia’s commitments put Australia under diplomatic and economic pressure, threatening Australia’s key coal export markets and investment sources.

In a speech ahead of the 14th G20 Summit in Osaka in 2019, Morrison stated the Indo-Pacific is ‘where we live’ and took for granted it is ‘where we have our greatest influence’. He emphasised Australia as a ‘staunch ally of the US’ with a deep and broad relationship with Japan and strong relationship with India. He spoke of the environmental pressures and threats to our climate, oceans and species. He also spoke of Australia as a ‘standard bearer for democracy and rule of law’. However, Australia’s inability to get its own house in order on climate has ramifications for its reputation in the very region it is purported we have our greatest influence.

Opportunities for Australia

In advance of Biden’s Summit, Morrison is attempting to prep the ground in Australia, carving space for himself with Aussie battlers while distancing himself from the frequenters of ‘cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of Australia’s inner-cities’ as unable to bring about net zero in a recent speech to Sydney’s business community. However, Morrison need not be so defensive.

Australian business and science communities already accept net zero by 2050 as sensible. Over 100 Australian businesses and associations have welcomed this target, including Unilever, Atlassian, BHP, the Australian Medical Association, and the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott. Others, like Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, have pledged to achieve net zero in their own enterprises by 2030. This should soften the ground for the government to find a net zero by 2050 target acceptable. Every state and territory in Australia has already committed to net zero by 2050. Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has stated that global warming must be arrested as a matter of urgency and that the economy will ‘keep on ticking’ as we ‘turn back the climate clock’. If Morrison accepts ‘following the science’ as he did for COVID, he should be on safe ground to follow Australia’s chief scientist to sound climate policy.

Professor Alan Finkel
Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel believes urgent action must be taken to 'turn back the climate clock'. Image credit: World Intellectual Property Organization, Flickr. 

Moreover, Australia has long been a leader in green technology. For the past thirty years, University of New South Wales has been leading the world in up-cycled green building materials, ‘green steel’ and photovoltaic solar cell technology, with graduates from the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering behind the success of billion-dollar solar companies in China.

Similarly, the Australian National University is home to advances in battery storage research. And a $51 billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub is being launched in the Pilbara to power a green hydrogen plant, which will produce more clean energy from solar and wind than all Australia’s coal-fired power stations combined. Thus, climate action can and will translate into job opportunities and clean technology commercialisation for Australia while safeguarding Australia from inevitable market loss in fossil fuels over the medium term. Beyond self-interest, it will also support a sustainable future.

Australia is also exploring how it can export its significant critical minerals to global electric vehicle production, particularly to support India’s vision of EMV manufacture. However, Australia’s significant strengths in green tech demonstrate that real leadership in the green economy can make us more than just a quarry for the region’s economic powerhouses.

Australia has the opportunity to convert its commitment ’as a staunch ally’ of the US into climate commitments. It has the opportunity to lead by example in the Indo-Pacific. Yet first the government needs to publicly accept that climate poses a risk to Australia’s own physical, economic and health security. We should then embrace the green economy as an investment in our future. Job migration from fossil fuels to greener jobs is inevitable, but the sooner we do it the less disruptive it will be to the labour market.

In 2021, climate diplomacy is beckoning a change from Australia that we are ready for and capable of achieving. Ultimately, it is a matter of leadership – the values and commitment that Morrison speaks so often about. In the Prime Minister’s own vernacular, we’d be mugs not to get on board.

Tanya Spisbah is the founder of thinkspace Strategic Sustainability and an Australian Delegate of the G20 Women's Summit. Until recently she was the Director of the Australia India Institute in India and is a former Australian diplomat and international trade negotiator.

Banner image: Climate action protesters gather in Brisbane, Australia - January 10, 2020. Credit: amyfraseroo, Shutterstock.