Commentary | 01 August 2017

Coal mine halt will bolster Australia's influence in crucial Pacific region

Originally published in the Canberra Times.

  • Greg Colton

Originally published in the Canberra Times.

  • Greg Colton

Turning our back on coal is a national security issue.

The British prime minister, William Gladstone, once stated that his first principle of foreign policy was good government at home. Gladstone's theory would have been painfully apparent for Australia's delegation to the inaugural Climate Action Pacific Partnership event held in Fiji last month. Throughout the conference the white elephant in the room, one that was occasionally thrust directly into the spotlight, was Australia's dubious title of 'world's largest coal exporter'. There was no avoiding the issue: Australia's domestic energy and resource policies are significantly undermining its foreign policy aims in the Pacific.

It is an uphill struggle for any politician to win favour with those countries most vulnerable to climate change when, at the same time, Australia is heavily involved in resourcing global warming. To be fair to Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, hers was a herculean task. Over the course of two days, a procession of Pacific Island leaders eloquently articulated the existential threat they faced if global temperature rises are not kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius (anticipated sea level rises caused by a 2 per cent increase are predicted to seal the fate of both Tuvalu and Kiribati, to name just two). Yet over the same two-day period that the conference ran, Australia shipped a staggering amount of coal. Using the government's figures for 2016-17 as a baseline, Australia will have exported approximately 2.6 million tonnes of coal which, when burnt, will release about 6.2 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. For a Pacific region which only contributes 0.03 per cent of all global CO2 emissions, it is a hard reality to ignore.

Australia needs to reassess its energy and resource policies and not just for altruistic reasons. The most recent Defence white paper, released in 2016, identified Australia's primary defence interest as a secure, resilient nation, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication. The second defence interest was a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime South East Asia and South Pacific. While the much-awaited foreign policy white paper is not due until later this year, it is reasonable to expect that it will broadly align with the government's stated security interests and place a strong emphasis on relationships with South Pacific nations. Therefore, it is all the more incongruent that Australia's foreign and defence policy is being undermined by its high levels of coal exports that can only increase global CO2 emissions.

You could be forgiven for thinking that few in government have actually read the Defence white paper. Despite some successes within the Defence portfolio, such as training missions conducted under the Defence Cooperation Program and the patrol boats provided under the Pacific Maritime Security Program, the link between influence in the South Pacific and Australia's national security seems to have been missed by other departments in the government. It certainly does not seem to have manifested itself in tangible outcomes. Take for example the overseas aid program. At 0.22 per cent of gross national income, it is the lowest level since records began in 1960, despite an increase of $84 million in the last budget. Hard to believe considering Australia is in its 26th year of continuous growth. Just more than 28 per cent of Australia's overseas development budget is spent on the Pacific, despite it having been identified as the most critical region to Australia's national security.

Then there's coal. In 2015, the Pacific Islands Development Forum issued the Suva Declaration on Climate Change. As well as calling for the Paris Agreement to be legally binding, it argued for a global dialogue regarding an international moratorium on the construction of new coal mines. While Australia is not a member of this body, and therefore not a signatory, the Suva Declaration clearly articulated the Pacific region's attitudes to fossil fuel production, stating: "[We] express grave concern that the continued increase in the production of fossil fuels, particularly the construction of new coal mines, undermines efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions".

This is why proposals in Australia for new mines, such as Adani's Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, is cause for so much discomfort in Pacific Island nations. No argument for domestic job creation carries much weight for island nations who are considering how to relocate their entire populations because of climate change. It is seen not only as a very selfish act from a supposed friend, but also ultimately foolish. As the prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, said in July: "A dead planet will not provide any jobs".

So, what can Australia do to increase its influence in a region that it has identified is critical to its national security? The most immediate and influential act would be to announce an immediate halt to any new coal mines. This would demonstrate real commitment to attempting to keep global temperature rises under 1.5 degrees Celsius. It would also show the Pacific region that Australia is using its market position for the greater good of the region. It is acts like this, rather than platitudes, that generate influence.

The moratorium on new mines would not result in the cessation of coal production. Current mines will continue to extract coal for decades. But it will start to drive up the price of coal, making renewables a more economically viable option. This in turn will drive investment in renewable energy. Some will argue that this will damage the economy. The same arguments were levelled at Wilberforce when he campaigned to ban slavery. History proved it was not only morally right, but also that the British economy did not catastrophically collapse once the ban was introduced. Likewise, a moratorium on new coal mines is both in the interests of mankind and will not cause the Australian economy to collapse.

The world is becoming less stable. Australia has identified that its influence in the Pacific is critical to its national security. Good government, in terms of domestic energy and resource policies that demonstrably legislate against future carbon emissions, is a critical part of successful foreign policy in the Pacific region. The two cannot be divorced. In the future, our national security may depend on it.