Australia and France collaborate to reduce environmental security risks

Special opportunities for bilateral cooperation

Anthony Bergin

Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, Science and technology | Australia, The Pacific, The World

27 June 2019

Despite the physical distance between the two countries, Australia and France have the opportunity to become allies in science, as reflected in a recent report outlining an environmental security ‘risk map’ for the near region, Anthony Bergin writes.

In the ‘Vision statement on the Australia–France relationship’ published last May, Malcolm Turnbull and Emmanuel Macron said they “welcomed the project to map environmental risks in the south of the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, which will help to understand and anticipate the security consequences of climate phenomena.”

The resulting report is a key step from the vision statement and Macron’s visit to Australia. The report – Environmental security in the eastern Indian Ocean, Antarctica, and the Southern Ocean: a risk mapping approach – was publicly released last week by the Australian National University’s National Security College. I was the chief investigator for the study and worked closely in preparing the report with David Brewster, François Gemenne, and Paul Barnes.

The study establishes an environmental security ‘risk map’ for our near region. It provides a contribution to the national security assessments of Australia and France and an enhanced foundation to inform policy decisions about the allocation of national resources, identifies opportunities for cooperation, and suggests priorities. French researchers will release a similar study of environmental security risks in the western Indian Ocean next year.

The report assesses the likelihood and consequences of major potential disruptions, details crosscutting sources of disruption and possible triggers for concerted action, and considers the implications of emergent issues or threats and escalated responses to them – including likely cascading and compounding impacts if threats aren’t addressed.

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The methodology for how the risk matrices were constructed is set out in detail in the report. The risk assessment matrix for the eastern Indian Ocean identifies threats and challenges to this subregion of the Indian Ocean that is closest to Australia. The countries in this area are Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.

The report makes nine recommendations in relation to the eastern Indian Ocean. They include the following:

  • Australia and France should join with like-minded partners to build dialogue, cooperation, and training among Indian Ocean coastguards. This could include a dedicated facility for the professional development of senior coastguard officials in the region.
  • Australia and France should work together to promote the establishment of integrated national maritime domain awareness systems in the Indian Ocean.
  • Australia and France should join with other partners to establish an Indian Ocean environmental security forum. This would bring together representatives from military and civilian agencies to create shared understandings of environmental security threats
More on this: France and Australia: a new strategic partnership in the Asia-Pacific

In the area south of latitude 60 degrees south, both France and Australia look at Antarctica and the Southern Ocean through a strategic lens, focused on supporting and strengthening the Antarctic Treaty System. France and Australia have adjacent territory in Antarctica: France’s Adélie Land bisects the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Both nations also possess neighbouring island territories in the sub-Antarctic region—for France, the Kerguelen and Crozet Islands, and for Australia, the Territory of Heard Island, and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

Both countries also assert their rights to the maritime zones around their territories, including sections of the Kerguelen Plateau. A delimitation agreement settles the boundary between Kerguelen and HIMI.

The risk assessment matrix for the Southern Ocean and Antarctica sets out the threats and challenges to this area.

The report makes 14 recommendations for cooperation between France and Australia in the region south of latitude 60 degrees south, including the following:

  • Australia and France should facilitate a regular multilateral search and rescue exercise in the future around the HIMI and Kerguelen area, in the Southern Ocean, and on the Antarctic continent.
  • Australia and France should jointly examine the management implications of climate change in the Antarctic region, looking at future Antarctic infrastructure, logistics, environmental management, the terrestrial environment, the marine environment, and resources.
  • As a trust-building measure for Antarctic countries, Australia, and France should lead on identifying guidelines for establishing and reinforcing the resilience of Antarctic infrastructure that take current and predicted climate changes into account. COP 25 in Chile could be a suitable venue.

France–Australia cooperation can be further developed to assist in risk mitigation to better manage activities in the geographical areas discussed in the report. There are grounds for optimism here. Environmental interests have played a major role in driving France’s cooperation with Australia in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

More on this: New Zealand: a global leader on climate and displacement

Despite the distances between Australian and French territories in the Indian Ocean, there are also substantial opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the eastern part of the ocean, reflecting their past experience in cooperation, their capabilities, and their shared perspectives on many issues.

There are many opportunities for bilateral cooperation in high-level scientific research alliances relevant to the blue economy and climate change.

The protection of the eastern Indian Ocean, Antarctic, and Southern Ocean ecosystems will require actions well in advance of when changes to those ecosystems may be detected.

Both Australia and France will need to work with a range of like-minded states with which they share common interests to address current challenges in managing the environmental system and the strategic risks that poor environmental management in the eastern Indian Ocean and the area south of latitude 60 degrees south will bring.

This article is co-published with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute‘s The Strategist.

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