Australia hopes to co-host COP31 but do we have what it takes?

Australia hopes to co-host COP31 but do we have what it takes?


Originally published in The Canberra Times, 1 March 2024.



The Australian government is looking to play a much bigger global role in pushing forward global climate action. After a decade as an international climate laggard, Australia is bidding to co-host the world's most important climate negotiations summit in 2026 - the 31st Conference of the Parties or COP31 - together with our Pacific Island neighbours. 

We might have an answer later this year as to whether Australia's bid succeeds. If it does, the pressure will be on for Australia to deliver - for the Pacific, the planet, and ourselves.

Co-hosting COP31 would be a big lift but also a huge opportunity for Australia. Partnering with Pacific Island nations - amongst the most climate vulnerable in the world - could provide a powerful way of galvanising the international urgency needed for more ambitious climate action.

It will also be a crucial opportunity for Australia to strengthen ties with its immediate region, where Australia is increasingly concerned about China's growing influence but Pacific Island nations themselves see climate change as their top concern.

Last year's climate summit in Dubai delivered a "historic" agreement between nations to transition away from fossil fuels, hailed by some leaders as "beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era". But for many, including the Pacific Islands, it fell far short of what is needed.

Two more climate summits are still to be held before Australia would co-host COP31: one in Azerbaijan at the end of this year and another in Brazil in 2025. COP30 in Brazil is supposed to be a major summit, with countries expected to ramp up their nationally determined targets for climate action. To date, commitments from countries have largely been insufficient, putting the world on a global warming trajectory well above the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Australia and the Pacific as an "Oceanic Alliance" could play a strong role in pushing countries to strengthen their pledges before the end of the critical decade for climate action in 2030.

Global emissions also need to have peaked in 2025, one year before a potential Oceania COP. While forecasts indicate that this will likely be achieved, progress will be subject to careful scrutiny. And if not, the pressure will be even greater for Australia to deliver the call for action required, together with its Pacific neighbours.

To succeed, Australia will have to demonstrate diplomatic leadership skills similar to those France was applauded for when the world negotiated the Paris Agreement in 2015, a truly historic outcome. Our planet needs another such moment.

Leveraging Australia's extensive history and bilateral ties with the Pacific presents an opportunity to convey the distinct circumstances of this especially climate vulnerable region to the world. These relate to the region's remoteness, small and vulnerable economies, compounded with exposure to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Highlighting the need for migration pathways akin to the Falepili Union agreement signed by the Australian and Tuvaluan governments would be a valuable contribution. Similar arrangements will become more relevant in the future and could position Australia as a global role model.

Domestically, one concern is that a change at next year's federal election from a Labor to a Coalition government could pose complications for Australia's ability to deliver, since the Coalition has historically been less supportive of climate action. A more positive take however is that having to co-host COP31 would likely encourage a conservative leader to embrace stronger climate action than otherwise.

Logistics in terms of where to meet will be important but difficult to navigate. The summit should reflect Pasifika ways: negotiating through Talanoa storytelling and a focus on indigenous knowledge. If the negotiations are held solely in Australia, such crucial aspects might be lost.

This is also the case for the leadership role. A shared presidency must not reflect the rich-poor country divide, even if unintentional. Who will hold the hammer as COP president matters. With the right sort of ambition, an Oceanic Alliance could be what is needed to drive stronger climate action. Australia will need to convince the rest of the world to endorse its bid.


Areas of expertise: Climate change, including climate change adaptation, loss and damage, international policy, and climate finance; and small island developing states
Areas of expertise: Climate adaptation, foreign aid and finance, decarbonising development