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

14 November 2017

Developing massive new coal mines puts Australia at odds with the Paris climate agreement, and puts its regional neighbours in peril, Chris Riedy writes.

Imagine this. Your home, the place you love above all else, is flooding and will soon become unliveable. You have no way to stop it and nowhere safe to go. Meanwhile, your wealthy neighbour watches on, secure on higher ground (for now). They do not offer to take you in. Worst of all, the flood is their fault, not yours. They talk about stopping the flood but their actions belie their words. Would you describe their behaviour as ethical?

I am, of course, describing the reality of climate change as experienced by Australia’s neighbours in the Pacific.

For many Pacific Islanders, climate change is not something to be debated in the media but something that deeply affects their lives. It brings coastal flooding, higher storm surges and more intense tropical cyclones, and has already forced many to leave their homes or change their way of life.

The latest evidence of these impacts is a report by Caritas on the State of the Environment for Oceania in 2017. The report documents “evidence of widespread displacement and disruption of people in Oceania from longer-term coastal flooding and sea level rise.” It rates the impacts in the Pacific as severe during 2016 and 2017.

More on this: Preparing for extremes | Shamshad Akhtar

For me, the most powerful aspect of the report is the stories told by Pacific Islanders of the experience of watching the homes they love being taken away. For Fred Gela of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council: “It’s almost like having your heart ripped out of your chest because you are told you’re not able to live on your land.”

Being displaced from your home in a world that does not welcome refugees is a frightening experience. Some countries in the region have stepped up to offer assistance. Fiji has committed to providing refuge for people displaced from neighbouring countries by climate change. New Zealand is considering a new visa category for those displaced by climate change. Australia has made no such offer.

In the opening of this piece, Australia plays the role of the wealthy neighbour who could, and should, do much more to help. Australia emits 12 times more greenhouse gas per person than Fiji and 25 times as much as Kiribati. Indeed, Australians are among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Now, and historically, Australia is much more responsible for the sea level rise being experienced in the Pacific than those living in the region. The ethical response would be to act to redress the impacts that Australia has played a disproportionate role in creating.

In the short term, an ethical response would be to assist people in the Pacific with adapting to climate change.

More on this: Podcast: Post-Paris - turning the climate agreement into action

In 2017-18, Australia will spend $200 million on climate change through its development aid budget, much of that in the Pacific. However, the Caritas report argues that a more appropriate commitment based on the size of Australia’s economy would be $3.2 billion per year of public and private funding by 2020.

Although it seems politically unimaginable right now, an ethical response from Australia should include not just more funding but a commitment to accept refugees displaced by the effects of climate change in the Pacific.

In the long term, the priority must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that climate change is halted and more Pacific Islanders will be able to remain in their homes. Australia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement that seeks to limit global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees and ideally to less than 1.5 degrees. Yet current political and media debate is preoccupied with questions of energy affordability and reliability rather than the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The outcome of all this debate is the Federal Government’s new National Energy Guarantee. Details remain sketchy but the policy does include an emissions guarantee to ensure Australia meets its greenhouse reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

The problem is that Australia’s target is not consistent with the targets set under the Paris Agreement. The international Climate Action Tracker rates Australia’s target as “inadequate” and argues that, if other countries took action similar to Australia, the world is heading for warming of between 3 and 4 degrees. Stronger targets are needed if Australia is to act ethically towards its Pacific neighbours.

Perhaps most worrying for our Pacific neighbours is Australia’s continued commitment to fossil fuel production. The International Energy Agency has made it clear that most of the world’s existing reserves of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if we are to meet the Paris Agreement targets. Yet the Australian Government continues to support the massive Carmichael coal mining project in Queensland, proposed by Adani. The mine would be the largest coal mine in Australia and would facilitate access to other coal resources in the Galilee Basin.

Developing these coal resources will fuel the flames of climate change and is completely inconsistent with the Paris Agreement.

Erietera Aram of Kiribati eloquently sums up the feeling about the mine’s impacts on the Pacific: “It makes the world worse for all of us. It is inconsiderate of other humans on this planet. We didn’t think of Australia as a country that would do that. We looked at it as our bigger brother.”

Australia’s big four banks have already ruled out investing in the mine, and the Queensland Government has announced that it will veto a $1 billion loan to the project under consideration by the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, assuming it wins the upcoming state election.

The most neighbourly, and ethical, thing that Australia could do right now for the Pacific would be to withdraw its support for the Carmichael mine and other major coal developments.

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