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If We Don’t Engage, Australia Will COP It

Joshua Preece | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Australia is a well-liked, resource-rich, medium-sized country that does best when we leverage our bilateral relationships and our multilateral forums and institutions to advance our national interest.

Right now, the biggest multilateral game in the world is climate policy. When world leaders descended on Glasgow for COP26 (the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference) in October, Australia’s stated position was to confront the dual challenges of reducing emissions while continuing to grow economies and create jobs.

In terms of philosophical approaches to foreign policy, this is an entirely sensible position. Australian foreign policy should be directed at the advancement of Australia’s national interests, and pursuing foreign policy goals that harm Australia’s prosperity will struggle to garner enduring support from the Australian public.

But we must also recognise that Australian climate policy is no longer just a domestic political issue. It is now infecting our foreign policy interests. The Biden administration has pointedly referred to Australia’s climate policies as “insufficient”. Our neighbours in the Pacific are deeply unimpressed with our approach to date, urging Australia to do more. As Australia successfully seeks to deepen our strategic influence in the Pacific region, a weak climate policy is likely to become a headwind that counteracts the goodwill we have built through supplying AUD$500 million dollars of COVID-19 vaccines and deals to undertake military deployments and exercises.

If we continue to refuse to do our fair share, we risk being accused by our friends and allies of being the worst thing an Australian can be charged with—a bludger.

There are two actions Australia should take on the international stage: first, we should push back against criticism from other states on Australia’s emissions, given Australia’s small contribution to total global emissions. Second, we need to come clean about how we intend to chart a path to a net-zero economy by 2050 and communicate this clearly to our partners and allies.

Defending Brand Australia

Australia’s current climate policy is negatively affecting the way we are viewed by the rest of the world. In the 2022 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), Australia was ranked last of 64 countries for climate change policy. We were the only country to receive a score of zero.

Although Australia has frequently attracted criticism due to our greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP and per capita being one of the highest amongst Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members, we have, until recently, managed to escape significant attention or pressure from our partners and allies due to Australia only being responsible for 1.3 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Australia is entitled to use this fact to push back against assertions that Australia isn’t pulling our weight internationally on climate, because these assertions harm our broadly positive image abroad.

Yes, Australia must raise our ambitions on climate policy. Yes, we must do better at playing our part in building a global economy that is green and inclusive. But it is in Australia’s interests to demand that the spotlight remains on the world’s largest contributors to global emissions—namely China, the United States, India, and Russia. Australia’s daunting task of restructuring our resource-driven economy to a green net-zero economy will require a herculean effort. If we’re successful and manage to drive down our share of global emissions to close to zero, it will be a kick in the teeth if the world’s largest polluters do not stand with us.

Net-Zero, But How?

Australia’s path to a net-zero economy by 2050 relies heavily on awaiting technological breakthroughs. Praying for rain is an acceptable strategy when you’re on a cattle station in the Nullarbor, but we can do better for a 30-year economic plan that we need to be able to convincingly sell to foreign governments, multilateral institutions, and investors.

On our current trajectory, market forces and peer nations will revolutionise the global economy without us. When we isolate ourselves from a process we don’t like, we don’t stop the process. We simply lose the chance to shape it in a way that promotes and protects Australia’s interests.

We shouldn’t be ashamed of being a leader in the global resources sector, and we know that global demand for Australia’s resources will continue to be strong. But if Australia is to remain prosperous and well-regarded by our peers, we need to innovate. As with every other foreign policy issue that affects us, we need to be punching above our weight, and elbowing to get a seat at the table, to ensure that the rules that are going to be governing a global net-zero economy are rules that suit and work for Australia. The worst outcome for Australia would be a domestic economy that has not been incentivised to harness future green economic opportunities, and a global economy filled with carbon border taxes enacted by our friends and trading partners that punishes Australian resource exports.

Australians are fair-minded when it comes to pulling our weight, and savvy in understanding international perceptions. Australians recognise that our defence force, our diplomatic service, and our foreign aid program all have a positive influence on our international reputation. It’s time to step-up and recognise that our ability to be an economic and moral leader on climate could do the same.

Joshua Preece is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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