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India, China cop finger pointing in climate politics

Published 24 Nov 2021 10:00    0 Comments

Two weeks of negotiations in Glasgow meant that COP26 resulted in a resolution – of sorts. Nations agreed to resume next year with stronger 2030 emissions reduction targets in a global bid to try to alleviate the worst consequences of the climate disaster. It wasn’t the achievement that was hoped for, but it was better than nothing, was the reasoned conclusion by many observers.

But one of the lasting impressions from the talks was to underscore the ongoing tensions of climate politics: a tug-of-war between the developed and developing worlds, with the latter helmed by China and India. The two Asian giants presented an eleventh-hour challenge by insisting that the language around coal power be watered down from “phase out” to “phase down”.

Many pointed out that India and other developing nations cannot be held to account when they contribute far less to global emissions.

In his closing remarks, COP26 President Alok Sharma voiced his disappointment and apologised to delegates “for the way this process has unfolded”. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson also weighed in, saying his delight at the summit’s progress was tinged with disappointment.

While many of us were willing to go there, that wasn’t true of everybody. Sadly that’s the nature of diplomacy … we cannot force sovereign nations to do what they do not wish to do.

So after two weeks of wrangling to little effect, ultimately the final analyses painted India and China, as the tacit leaders of the developing world, as those stymying efforts to help countries at far more risk avoid the lasting effects of climate change. Sharma later said India and China would have to “explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did”.

It’s pretty damning stuff, particularly when you add in headlines such as “Did India betray vulnerable nations?” (BBC) and “COP26 agrees new climate rules but India and China weaken coal pledge” (Financial Times). The optics have India and China painted as climate villains, intent on preserving their own economic growth at the throwaway expense of their more vulnerable neighbours.

But that’s the problem with the Google algorithm: it favours certain sources and media, so you’re not necessarily getting a well-rounded perspective of how the COP26 outcome was painted in other places.

In India, as in some corners of the Western media, there was disagreement with this view, with many pointing out that it and other developing nations cannot be held to account when they contribute far less to global emissions.

In particular, Indians are angry over the lack of the promised funding towards the developing world to help those countries adapt. One TV channel went so far as to label the summit a failure. “Why COP is a flop” said the newsreader. “After two weeks of hard-fought negotiations, the conference managed to achieve nothing of substance. The main point was to limit global temperatures,” she continued, leaning on the word “global”. “Which is why you need a fall guy. Fingers were pointed at India.”

A request for motorists to turn off their engines while waiting at a traffic signal in New Delhi, India, 9 November 2021 (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On one hand, there are the usual Indian TV news histrionics at play, but the sentiment is not unreasonable. Why does the developed world continue to insist that India and China cycle harder towards achieving the goal of net zero when, per capita, developing countries use far less fossil fuel-based energy sources?

It’s a continuation of an argument that has plagued climate negotiations for years, even decades, pitting the developed world against the developing world. Wealthy countries want poorer countries to do more to curb emissions, while at the same time reneging on commitments to provide financial assistance as promised at a previous COP, 12 years ago, that they would contribute $100 billion per year to developing countries to help them become more ecologically sound – whether it be by redesigning cities or transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

But the amount donated has been far less than what was promised. The United States, which was expected to contribute almost half of that annual $100 billion, contributed somewhere between $6.6 billion and $11 billion per year. (Australia contributed less than $1 billion, while France was the largest donor.)

There was a new urgency surrounding Glasgow, but ultimately it was a continuation of the climate politics that have been ongoing for a couple of decades.

So what Indians are pointing out is that rich countries, which emit far greater emissions (such as Australia, which has the highest per capita coal emissions in the world, with each Australian emitting five times more carbon dioxide from coal than any other person in the world), seemingly want to force unrealistic goals on developing countries, and then fail to provide them with the resources they need to transition. And then point fingers at India and China for refusing to commit to end the use of coal.

Climate politics are nothing new. With the events of recent years – more frequent and more devastating natural disasters being experienced around the world, from bushfires to landslides to cyclones – there was a new urgency surrounding Glasgow, but ultimately it was a continuation of the climate politics that have been ongoing for a couple of decades. 

For what it’s worth, the China and India effort to tweak “phase out” to “phase down” might have appeared as a power play and pure semantics, but there is more to it. China and India are already scaling up their use of renewables – for example, enormous solar parks in desert areas of Rajasthan – but recognise that it will take longer to shrink their dependence on coal, as well as oil and gas (the fossil fuels that aren’t mentioned as often as coal).

In an ironic coda to the end of the negotiations, India’s capital New Delhi went into a lockdown due to the city’s ongoing and worsening air pollution levels. Schools and colleges are shut indefinitely, and construction work has also been halted for at least the next few days. The smog is the result of a cocktail of factors: stubble burning in nearby Punjab and Haryana, the residue of Diwali firecrackers, and compounded by economic development, with extra cars, trucks, construction and factories. At the same time, winter is approaching, with the cold air sinking and trapping the pollution.

So, paradoxically, as India agitated for greater leniency on net zero, its own citizens were choking on smog. It’s a reminder of how diplomatic self-interest isn’t always in the best interest.

Glasgow delivered, but what, exactly?

Poet Yrsa Daley-Ward performs at the opening ceremony for COP26 in Glasgow. (Karwai Tang/UK Government/Flickr)
Poet Yrsa Daley-Ward performs at the opening ceremony for COP26 in Glasgow. (Karwai Tang/UK Government/Flickr)
Published 23 Nov 2021 06:00    0 Comments

The Glasgow climate conference – the 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Climate Convention – was held in uniquely difficult circumstances compared to its 25 predecessors: during a global pandemic, facing a two-year backlog of work due to its postponement from 2020 and with the collective failure of developed countries to deliver US$100 billion in climate finance per year haunting the proceedings. On the other side of the ledger, the one-year delay meant a fully re-engaged United States under President Joe Biden.

There were high hopes: Bend the emissions curve towards the 1.5°C goal – “keeping 1.5 alive” – through the strengthened national climate plans due by this conference; complete the Paris Agreement “rulebook” with much-needed rules on carbon markets and transparency; and scale up climate finance for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Against these measures, Glasgow can be counted a partial success. Not enough was achieved but it was more than many – this author included – had expected.

UN climate conferences promise an odd experience at the best of times. The agenda has become so sprawling that probably only conference organisers, delegation heads and their close collaborators have an overall view of things at any given time. The rest of us have to focus on our beat. In my case, this meant focusing on technology negotiations as a member of the European Union team and as chair of the UNFCCC Technology Executive Committee.

No amount of wordplay can conceal the fact that coal is well on its way to being both down and out.

Harried negotiators rush from room to windowless room past performative demonstrations (often very creative) and lobbyists boozing on in corporate-sponsored pavilions. Countries compete to host these events and each locale is distinctive. In Glasgow, we had the surreal experience of spending an evening in intense and often circular negotiations while fireworks exploded somewhere above us for literally hours. Even before I heard that it was Guy Fawkes Night, it seemed clear that the fireworks were not for us.

On top of the standard COP experience, spending two weeks with tens of thousands of people from almost two hundred countries in a crowded conference centre during a pandemic did not feel like a very rational thing to do. In this case, it was necessary – the previous 18 months had exposed the limits of virtual diplomacy. The daily Covid-19 test before the trek to the venue felt like a ticket in a macabre lottery. The fatalism of the relatively young and vaccinated was periodically shaken as colleagues tested positive or were forced into isolation. Covid also disrupted some negotiating tracks as positive tests removed key figures from the scene.

Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, speaking at the Exploring Loss and Damage event at COP26 on 8 November (Justin Goff/UK Government/Flickr)

As a negotiator and also as a facilitator (when individuals step out of their party delegation and adopt a neutral chairing role), you have to assume that most colleagues are acting in good faith. Even when they are clearly not, calling them out would not be helpful. The process works on a consensus basis and each party (states plus the European Union) has the same right to be at the table with its concerns and priorities. It is not efficient, but it does have the legitimacy of nearly every nation on Earth sending representatives to tackle our greatest shared challenge.

One can sometimes discern competing worldviews at play just beneath the acronyms and brackets. In a negotiation on technology, for example, the Saudi delegate called for all references to gender to be deleted. We fought to keep these in and were successful. We were also able to secure seats for youth, women and gender, and Indigenous groups on a technology advisory board, overcoming the hesitancy of some about granting social movements a direct role in climate governance. One small sign that their voices are increasingly being heard in rooms where decisions are made and not just on the streets.

These meetings are not an annual “last chance to save the planet”.

On the central question of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Glasgow had some impact. New national targets announced by the end of COP26 are estimated to have reduced the global heating outlook to between 1.8° and 2.4°. As this is still too high, the COP requested parties to strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of next year “as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal”. This is a clear message to those countries which failed to submit updated plans by COP26.

Propelled by the political momentum of net-zero pledges, the COP also broke its decades-long habit of silence on fossil fuels. (To the casual observer who may be surprised that governments can negotiate on climate since the early 1990s without mentioning coal, welcome to the United Nations.) A last-minute intervention by India, supported by China, weakened the language from “phase-out” to “phasedown” of “unabated coal”.

However, no amount of wordplay can conceal the fact that coal is well on its way to being both down and out. The global transition of capital towards climate-friendly activities – punctuated by major announcements but barely on the official agenda here – is well under way. Incidentally, it speaks volumes that this redirection of finance flows is forcing laggards to confront climate reality in a way that mere science never could.

Also on finance, the COP noted “with deep regret” the failure to mobilise $100 billion by 2020 and called on developed countries to collectively double finance for adapting to climate change by 2025. More positively, the long-delayed agreement on Paris Agreement carbon market rules should lead to further investment in emission reductions.

Was the organisation of the conference shambolic? The COP president, British government minister Alok Sharma, could not have worked harder and the United Kingdom team members I dealt with were dedicated and professional. There was nevertheless a degree of chaos and ad hocery which reminded me of London during the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. As the first major conference of its kind since the pandemic began, I think our hosts deserve some latitude on this score. We muddled through, as the Brits say.

Like many COPs before it, the Glasgow conference was freighted with impossible expectations. Its outcomes should make one thing clear. These meetings are not an annual “last chance to save the planet” (if they were, then frankly, God help us). They are now fundamentally about tracking and managing the Paris Agreement’s implementation. This process requires both high-level political compacts and dozens of technical decisions. COP26 made progress but did not – and could not – deliver miracles. It remains up to governments, businesses and all of us to build the future we need.

This article was written in a personal capacity.

Just how serious is Xi about climate change?

China’s President Xi Jinping (fourth from left) during a visit to the Yellow River Delta near Dongying, Shandong Province, 21 October (Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images)
China’s President Xi Jinping (fourth from left) during a visit to the Yellow River Delta near Dongying, Shandong Province, 21 October (Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Published 29 Oct 2021 11:00    0 Comments

As the leaders of world’s largest carbon emitters meet in Glasgow in the coming days, it is still undetermined whether the single most influential individual of the group will show up. Despite pleas from his counterparts to attend in person, it currently appears that China’s President Xi Jinping intends to attend the COP26 summit virtually from Beijing.

While it is unclear as to what Xi has to gain from withholding his physical presence, or what could be a more pressing domestic matter, the current will-he-or-won’t-he limbo is a somewhat fitting representation of China’s deep and confusing ambivalence to the climate question, and its role in a potential low-carbon future.

One could be excused for wondering why it is that China has not been a much stronger advocate for global action to address climate change. Of the world’s major economic and military powers, China may have the most to lose from a potential climate catastrophe. It also may have the most to gain from a low-carbon future global economy.

The Party’s order-obsessed leaders are keenly aware of how their country’s climate has impacted a regime’s hold on power. China’s history is replete with instances of its major rivers flooding, spurring a series of events such as famine, rebellion, and in some cases, the fall of entire dynasties. As we begin to see the early effects of climate change, there are early indications that even China’s impressive infrastructure may struggle to handle what is to come.

For all the prospects and pledges of China’s green dream, China is presently a carbon nightmare.

In 2020, heavy rains brought about massive flooding along the Yangze River, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes and pushing the massive Three Gorges Dam to its capacity, prompting concerns that it would be breached or overflow, a scenario which would have had catastrophic consequences.

Over the longer term, sea level rise threatens to submerge much of both Shanghai and the Pearl River delta, China’s two largest economic and trade hubs. The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, which feed China’s major rivers, are also melting at a rapid pace, raising the prospect of crippling long-term water shortages.

Aside from the shared human challenge of avoiding climate doom, Chinese companies are uniquely well-positioned to thrive in a decarbonising global economy. While needing to rely heavily on imports to meet its massive appetite for oil, China is dominant in nearly every step of the value chain for lithium-ion batteries, the key technology used for electric vehicles, electronic devices, and for storing the energy generated through many of the most popular forms of renewable energy.

Having failed to put up much competition with their European, Japanese, and American rivals in the market for internal combustion engines, Chinese automakers are now global leaders in EVs, filling two of the top five spots globally for all-electric vehicle sales in 2020. China’s rail network is lauded by climate activists and urban planners alike, and as countries around the world look to build less carbon-intensive transportation infrastructure, Chinese rolling stock manufacturers are getting plenty of new business. China is also dominant in the manufacturing of solar panels and other components of the solar power value chain, so dominant that some in Washington have reportedly argued to overlook accusations of forced labour in order to import Chinese solar panels.

A coal carrier in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province on 24 October (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

For Xi, his declarations of cooperation on climate issues have been some of the few bright spots for him internationally, as China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy has harmed its international standing. After the US and China failed to reach an agreement during 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, the success of 2015’s Paris accord has been partly attributed to Xi’s willingness to reach a deal, as well as his more centralised degree of decision-making control, in contrast to the consensus-based model of his predecessors in Beijing.

Whether purely for show or with genuine intentions, Xi has spoken seriously about climate on the global stage. His pledge for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 at the 2020 UN General Assembly was met with robust praise, as was his commitment this year to cease coal power plant projects in the wide-reaching Belt and Road Initiative. Though issues of climate have historically been avoided in China’s domestic media, Xi seems to be slowly changing the messaging there as well.

Yet for all the prospects and pledges of China’s green dream, China is presently a carbon nightmare. Its emissions have surpassed that of the entire Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development members combined, and continue to grow. Much of the country’s economic activity revolves around its horribly wasteful construction and heavy industry sectors, which have behaved like a runaway freight train for much of the past decade, overleveraged and embarking on increasingly unproductive projects spurred on by the government’s lofty growth targets.

While Xi has pledged to stop building further coal plants abroad, China has been on a domestic coal binge. Nearly 60 per cent of its domestic power is generated by coal, and it continues to expand its capacity. Lofty ambitions for cleaner power are undercut by the incentives of the system that drove the country’s rise, a system that is deeply addicted to cheap coal power. Detoxing, if possible, will require taking on some of China’s most powerful and deeply entrenched political and economic institutions.

There is reason to believe that Xi is sincere about China’s climate pledges. Yet delivering on such commitments while simultaneously remaining in power and keeping the country’s economy afloat is a juggling act on top of a high-wire. The world may have no choice but to hope he succeeds.

Protecting people who lose their homes to climate change

Labourers working on a salt pan at the Little Rann of Kutch region, Gujarat, India (Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)
Labourers working on a salt pan at the Little Rann of Kutch region, Gujarat, India (Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 26 Oct 2021 10:00    0 Comments

A long-awaited report released last week in the United States by the Biden administration recommends a new legal pathway for humanitarian protection for people facing serious threats to their life because of climate change. The US has a compelling national interest to strengthen protection for people displaced by the impacts of climate change, it notes. The White House report also recognises that migration is not only “an important form of adaptation to the impacts of climate change”, but sometimes “an essential response”. It acknowledges that permanent, and not just temporary, pathways are needed.

The report’s release ahead of the upcoming UN climate talks in Glasgow is not accidental. As contemporary crises interlock and compound, more people are likely to be trapped or displaced by the impacts of disasters, climate change, conflict, humanitarian emergencies and pandemics.

Already, three times as many people are displaced within their countries by disasters than by conflict. These numbers are likely to grow as disasters become more frequent and severe because of climate change. Some people will also cross international borders, and without more predictable, protection-oriented measures in place, there is a risk that they will end up trapped, detained, or turned back.

While some people will qualify for protection as refugees or on human rights grounds (which are glaringly absent from US law), many will not. Although the UN Human Rights Committee has made clear that it is unlawful for governments to send people back to countries where climate change impacts expose them to life-threatening risks or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, thus far, no applicant has met the requisite threshold. International law also doesn’t provide a direct pathway for people to migrate in anticipation of future impacts, because migration laws are the domain of each individual country.

After 2010 floods in Pakistan (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The White House report draws and builds on a huge body of research and policy developed over the past decade. In fact, in 2015, 109 governments – including the United States – endorsed a Protection Agenda to ensure that people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters were protected and empowered. Some of its recommendations are reflected in the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which affirms that governments must not return people to situations of irreparable harm, and stresses that they should plan for climate-related movement by creating humanitarian, migration and other kinds of visas to assist people at risk.

The Asia-Pacific region is on the frontline of the climate crisis. King tides, cyclones, floods and drought are already displacing large numbers of people each year – over 12 million in 2020, which was 30 per cent of the global total. Pacific Island countries are at particular risk.

As the Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke and I argued in a policy brief last year, by creating more temporary and long-term visa opportunities for Pacific Islanders, Australia could provide a release valve for those at risk of displacement. Migration can be an important adaptation and risk-management strategy because it allows people to move before disaster strikes, safely and on their own terms. It can enhance the resilience of those who move, as well as those who stay behind. The White House report recognises this.

Just as the United States played a leading role in establishing the post-war universal human rights regime, this report could provide an important turning point for climate justice.

The report’s recommendations offer a principled, orderly framework for protecting people escaping the risks posed by disasters and environmental degradation, building on principles outlined in the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the context of Sea Level Rise. The recommendations of the White House report could provide a model for other countries, such as Australia, to review their own protection frameworks and migration laws, in order to provide multiple, safe pathways for people at risk.

The report also recommends the creation of a new standing interagency policy process on Climate Change and Migration, which would bring together the scientific, development, humanitarian, democracy and human rights, and peace and security elements of government to coordinate the efforts by the United States to avert and respond to mobility in the face of climate change. Importantly, the report recognises the importance of robust humanitarian assistance to affected communities, but also the need for far greater investment in adaptation, risk reduction, and resilience.

Just as the United States played a leading role in establishing the post-war universal human rights regime, this report could provide an important turning point for climate justice. In that earlier era, governments rose above their national interests to seek common ground on fundamental values that united humanity, based on “the dignity and worth of the human person”. Will they do so again?

At the very least, the report highlights the fact that people are already moving away from the impacts of climate change, and will continue to do so, probably in growing numbers. If governments turn a blind eye to this dimension of the climate crisis, not only will millions of people suffer, but spontaneous movement to countries such as Australia may increase. Addressing such movement head on will not only help to provide security and protection to people who have lost their homes but would also allow governments to maintain more control over their borders – something that would surely appeal to the Australian government.

Glasgow: a tipping point for serious action

A coal power plant of German energy giant RWE in Neurath, western Germany (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)
A coal power plant of German energy giant RWE in Neurath, western Germany (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 25 Oct 2021 11:00    0 Comments

In a little over a week, the most consequential climate meeting in human history begins in Glasgow, Scotland. The Earth has warmed by up to 1.3°C since 1880. Devastating fires, cyclones and weather are wreaking havoc around the world. And current emissions trends put the world on a path toward 3°C of catastrophic heating by 2100, which would trigger tipping points such as the melting of the poles, the loss of the Amazon rainforest, and a drastic slowdown in the Atlantic ocean circulation.

Under the Paris Agreement, this year countries must submit new nationally determined commitments (NDC’s) to reduce emissions that are consistent with holding global heating well below 2°C and as close to 1.5°C as possible. Yet a recent United Nations assessment of existing NDCs estimates that they will only hold heating to 2.7°C – and then only if they are implemented. The UN’s recent Production Gap report, which finds that countries are planning to produce 190% more fossil fuels by 2040 than is consistent with the 1.5°C guardrail, puts the sincerity of these commitments in doubt.

Of course, there is still time for states to submit stronger targets and announce them in the Glasgow spotlight. By 12 November, we will know if the world’s governments are serious about stopping catastrophic warming, and whether the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the best vehicle for that.

But there are worrying signs it is being set up for failure.

After the US decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement last year brought new hope, the Biden administration is struggling to pass its climate plan through Congress. While US climate envoy John Kerry has been energetic in pressing allies and adversaries alike to lift their ambition, American credibility is on the line.

It is hard to think of one more consequential since the League of Nations failed to prevent the Second World War.

Due to Covid restrictions, many Pacific Island countries are not able to send their leaders or even a delegation. Many other African countries and climate vulnerable states face the same barriers. And key leaders are not planning to attend: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and China’s Xi Jinping. India’s Narendra Modi only announced his attendance last Friday.

Assessing their Paris commitments against scientific advice that states must cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, Climate Action Tracker rates Brazil, India, and China as “highly insufficient” and Russia “critically insufficient”. Such foot-dragging raises serious concerns that countries responsible for almost half the world’s annual emissions could be preparing to crash the meeting’s outcome.

Even more alarming is a combative ministerial statement issued last week by the coalition of “Like Minded Developing Countries” (LMDC, which includes China, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia).

It rejects the growing consensus that the world must reach net zero by 2050, which they charge “runs counter to the Paris Agreement and is anti-equity and against climate justice”. Re-asserting the “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” principle quietly de-emphasised at Paris, they demand that developed countries achieve full decarbonisation this decade based on their “historical responsibility for the predominant majority of cumulative anthropogenic emissions since the Industrial Revolution” while they pursue fossil-fueled development paths with impunity.

However, an important new CarbonBrief study casts grave doubt on this self-serving framing of climate justice. By including the historical emissions from land use change and deforestation, it has dramatically overturned the previous picture in which the developed north is the world’s largest contributor to existing warming. While the United States is still the world’s largest historical emitter by far, China, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia are second, third, fourth and fifth. Germany is sixth and India seventh. Developed nations take up the next six places, with Australia thirteenth due to its coal dependence and enormous emissions from land clearing. Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa then follow.



When we then consider that China is now responsible for 30 per cent of annual world emissions, twice that of the United States, and add concern about future global heating, there is a broad equality of responsibility for preventing catastrophe.

Not only is the LMDC’s framing of climate justice untenable, it ignores the terrible human toll of ongoing fossil fuel burning, deforestation and climate chaos, which falls heaviest on the world’s poorest people. Just in the last decade, violent cyclones have killed tens of thousands of people and caused billions in damage in the Philippines, Fiji, Mozambique, the Caribbean, and the southern states of the United States.

Four million Bangladeshis were displaced by extreme weather and sea-level rise in 2019. Climate activists and environmental defenders campaigning against deforestation, mining and oil extraction are being murdered in their hundreds annually. And air pollution from coal-fired power, motor vehicles and household burning kills as many as 8 million globally every year, many of them in India and China.

In this light, climate justice requires a global effort to cut emissions as quickly as possible.

In stark contrast to the LMDC, the Climate Vulnerable Forum of 48 poorer nations across Africa, the Middle-East, the South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean is calling for COP26 to deliver a “climate emergency pact” to rebuild confidence in international cooperation, accelerate adaptation, and keep the 1.5°C guardrail within reach. They call for a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy but propose a “emergency coalition for climate resilient debt restructuring” to ensure just transitions.

The focus here on the position of the emerging economies should not distract from the poor performance of developed countries such as Australia, Canada, the EU and United Kingdom, none of whose commitments are yet aligned with a safe climate future.

The Glasgow climate conference will be a critically important event. While there have been many crucial international meetings over the years, it is hard to think of one more consequential since the League of Nations failed to prevent the Second World War.

Australia, Indonesia and climate change

Planting rice at Pangkajene, near Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia (Tri Saputro/CIFOR/Flickr)
Planting rice at Pangkajene, near Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia (Tri Saputro/CIFOR/Flickr)
Published 20 Oct 2021 06:00    0 Comments

In February 2020, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo made a state visit to Australia and addressed a joint sitting of the Australian parliament. This was a rare privilege granted to only a few world leaders, and Indonesia’s popular president – known as Jokowi – used the opportunity to emphasise the great friendship he felt existed between the two countries.

Jokowi noted that 40 members of Indonesia’s armed forces were in Australia at the time helping with bushfire recovery. He recalled the vital assistance Australia provided to his nation following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and described Australia as Indonesia’s “closest friend”.

In that speech, the president also extended an important invitation to Australia, to work with Indonesia:

to protect the environment, to achieve sustainable development and reforestation in forest and river upstream areas, to prevent forest and land fires, to commit to lowering carbon emissions and to develop renewable energy and other green technologies.

Unfortunately, within a few weeks this grand vision for a new direction in Australia-Indonesia relations was forgotten as both countries scrambled to respond to another existential threat – the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Almost two years earlier, in March 2018, my staff and I at the Australian Consulate-General in Makassar hosted the first ever Australia-Indonesia Renewable Energy Field Study and Seminar. We had concluded that Indonesia’s eastern archipelago shared similar energy challenges to outback Australia: many isolated communities, which relied on expensive electricity supplied by diesel-fuelled generators. But they also had plentiful sunshine and wind: renewable power generation would free these communities from dependence on imported diesel fuel.

In February 2020, when Jokowi invited Australia to collaborate on carbon emission reductions and renewable energy, he was asking Indonesia’s “closest friend” to come on board and help.

Our seminar was also energised by Jokowi’s announcement of the goal of adding 35 gigawatts to the national network and setting a renewable energy target of 23 per cent by 2025. Our talks generated some new business, but also a lot of discussion about the obstacles to private sector involvement in Indonesia’s still-small renewable energy sector.

Indonesia’s renewable energy goal has not changed since 2018. As of April 2021, renewables accounted for 13.8 per cent of Indonesia’s utility power, mostly from hydropower and some geothermal power sources. Wind and solar still account for less than one per cent of Indonesia’s power mix, and the pace of new renewable energy projects has been slow. Indonesia has signed the Paris Agreement and committed to net zero emissions by 2060, but says it needs international assistance to meet its climate goals.

Investment in Indonesia’s renewable energy sector has been frustrated by complex regulations, unattractive feed-in tariffs from the national energy company PLN, weak and unstable electrical networks, and lack of skills, knowledge and awareness in the renewable energy sector. A bill on renewable energy has been before the parliament for several years, and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has drafted a presidential regulation on renewable energy, but both have yet to see the light of day.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Franz Mahr/World Bank/Flickr)

To date, Australia’s commitments to Indonesia on climate change have been paltry. In February 2020, when Jokowi invited Australia to collaborate on carbon emission reductions and renewable energy, he was asking Indonesia’s “closest friend” to come on board and help his country of 270 million people to achieve its climate goals.

Now, as both countries come out of the pandemic, and as Australia’s federal government moves closer to accepting real emissions reduction targets, Australia can respond to this invitation in a meaningful way.

Since Jokowi’s visit to Australia, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has reignited the sense of urgency about climate change. And if Australia does overhaul its climate policy before COP26 in Glasgow, the federal government can do something over two thirds of Australians want it to do: to become a global leader on climate action. The government could also save its international reputation: a first step would be to recommit to the UN Green Climate Fund.

In responding to Jokowi’s invitation there are many ways Australia could reorient the bilateral relationship. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Look into developing a Green Economy Agreement with Indonesia, similar to that being negotiated with Singapore;
  • Develop a ministerial-level climate change and renewable energy dialogue with Indonesia to discuss areas for cooperation, and to build linkages between key government agencies on climate policies;
  • Boost the development assistance program to focus on climate change, providing assistance to government agencies in developing new regulations and skills needed to build a renewable energy economy, and, for example, providing small grants to support community-level renewable energy projects;
  • Establish a green energy business dialogue under the Indonesia-Australia Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, which could include business seminars on renewable energy, training for Indonesian technicians in rooftop solar installation, support for university and technical college linkages in renewable energy technologies and climate change policies.

With the right will and in the spirit of growing friendship, Australia and Indonesia can now turn the challenge of climate change into a key area of bilateral cooperation. There are many things both countries can do together, and should do, to help build a better climate future for future generations.

The right climate for central planning

An overgrowth of sea lettuce due to the increasing of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Izmir, Turkey (Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency via Getty)
An overgrowth of sea lettuce due to the increasing of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Izmir, Turkey (Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency via Getty)
Published 19 Oct 2021 10:00    0 Comments

If there really is a marketplace for ideas, it’s fair to say that central planning hasn’t been flying off the shelves of late. It’s not hard to see why. The murderous regimes of Stalin and Mao are not good advertisements for the brand, or for the possible merits of socialism, for that matter. But at a time when many – especially the young – despair of effective action being taken to address climate change, global inequality and a pervasive sense of insecurity, is central planning actually worth another look?

No doubt many prospective readers have already clicked away from the page, but the idea that central planning might be part of the solution rather than the problem is not as fanciful as it may seem. How else are we to describe the forthcoming COP26 meeting, when many of the world’s leaders will assemble in Glasgow with the explicit intention of coordinating their actions to address collective action problems, which cannot be conceptualised much less achieved without planning and forethought?

Unpalatable as it may be for many to contemplate, life on a finite planet means, for example, that we can’t wait until Brazil has destroyed the rainforest upon which we all depend to put a stop such forms of self-destructive behaviour.

True, this is a long way from an all-powerful individual state deciding how many toothbrushes to produce every year, but it’s still a very different vision of the future from one that universities continue to teach students of economics and even international relations, for that matter. Rather than an international system of competing national economies and states, it is becoming painfully apparent that if we are to survive in anything like a civilised fashion, greater coordination of our actions is an inescapable necessity.

To be clear, I have absolutely no expectation that this will actually come about. On the contrary, so-called “realists” have all the most plausible arguments about the likely trajectory of human society. Anarchy, disorder, social upheaval, and probably outright war, are the all too probable consequences of unaddressed climate change, as all of the long-standing predictions of climate scientists come to pass. Under such circumstances, a bit of lateral thinking has the merit of being mildly therapeutic, if nothing else.

The surprising thing, perhaps, is that it is possible to make – not entirely implausible – theoretical arguments about “saving the planet”, in which something like central planet plays a part; perhaps an inescapable one. Unpalatable as it may be for many to contemplate, life on a finite planet means, for example, that we can’t wait until Brazil has destroyed the rainforest upon which we all depend to put a stop such forms of self-destructive behaviour that imperils us all.

Weighing plastic bottles at a recycling facility near Gioto Dumping site in Nakuru, Kenya (James Wakibia via Getty Images)

A little closer to home in Australia, “we” can’t wait for the National Party to grasp that our collective future is on the line before we rapidly move to close down “our” coal industry, either, as it cannot possibly be part of even the least ambitious vision of planetary planning. Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no “we” to urge even democratic governments to act. The chances of a “revolution from below” transforming the likes of Russia, China or even India look vanishingly small.

Indeed, if we can’t act effectively in Australia, it’s hard to imagine who can. We are, after all, not just the world’s driest continent, but we are a democracy with the potential to act and to change. Even within national borders, the need for coordinated action and actual planning will be inescapable – and ideologically unpalatable for political and economic elites who are inextricably wedded to the idea that the market knows best.

To be fair, some elements of the private sector may be key parts of any possible solution to our collective woes. Bureaucrats aren’t always leading sources of organisational innovation, let alone the technological kind, but left to its own devices and incentive structures, the market tends to produce more trash than treasure. The market will address that too, if we let it, by exporting all our rubbish to parts of the world that have a comparative advantage in poverty.

This is, of course, precisely where the influence of uncoordinated market forces have brought us to: a rapidly heating planet, riven by grotesque asymmetries of wealth, opportunity and security, that is drowning in its own detritus. The impact on our fellow creatures has been even more catastrophic: plainly human beings are not experiencing the mass extinctions that are consuming the “natural world” – or not yet, at least.

Suggesting that polar bears have the sort of right to life that human beings supposedly enjoy, and that this ought to be part of our collectively planned enterprise, will be too much for many readers, no doubt. Let me reiterate, though: if we can’t look after ourselves, I’ve no expectation we’ll be able to do it for the depressing, rapidly lengthening list of animals that are critically endangered either.

So, yes, advocating even a watered-down form of central planning in which private enterprise has a suitably circumscribed role is eccentric and unlikely to be taken at all seriously. But given the stakes, the time frame, and the historical track record of unbridled capitalism – it helped to get us into this mess, after all – perhaps “there is no alternative”, as Mrs Thatcher might have said.

Coming up for air: global action to stop pollution

The central business district of Beijing during a sandstorm on 15 March 2021 (Leo Ramirez/AFP via Getty Images)
The central business district of Beijing during a sandstorm on 15 March 2021 (Leo Ramirez/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 18 Oct 2021 12:00    0 Comments

The Indonesian government lost a “citizen lawsuit” last month against 32 Jakarta residents after the court ruled that the defendants, which included President Joko Widodo, had responsibility for controlling air pollution in the capital city. The decision also pointed a finger at the governors of neighbouring West Java and Banten, as air pollution from their provinces had affected Jakarta.

The decision is fascinating, given a report last year from the Centre for Research, Energy and Clean Air claimed that the “airshed” covering Jakarta extends far beyond its administrative boundaries to include Central Java and Bogor. This was attributed in part to meteorological factors and industrial zoning of surrounding regions. But the problem extends much further. During the southwest monsoon period in spring, smoke haze from land and forest fires in Indonesia can even cause particulate matter pollution at levels considered damaging to human health as far away as Singapore.

Air pollution does not respect national borders. At the beginning of January 2020, smoke from bushfires in Australia lead to haze in the South Island of New Zealand. In May this year the journal Environment and Development Economics published an article which linked days with high levels of particulate matter in China’s capital of Beijing to a 7.4 per cent increase in foetal deaths in South Korea.

On 22 September the World Health Organisation announced its new global air quality guidelines.  First published as the WHO air quality guidelines for Europe in 1987, a global update was published in 2005. The update this year has greatly reduced what is considered to be the acceptable levels of a range of pollutants including particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. While not binding, the guidelines can be used by individual countries to set air quality standards. One of the architects of the new guidelines, Queensland University of Technology professor Lidia Morawska, captured the challenge when she said “breathing is not a choice”.

Most countries will exceed the new acceptable levels in some locations. In Australia, that will most often be in the cities. In 2019 more than 90 per cent of the global population lived in areas where air recorded air quality exceeded the 2005 guideline levels. The WHO estimate that 7 million people die annually from poor air quality, and many more lose several years of life expectancy.

Air pollution can affect brain and foetal development, result in diseases in almost all organs, and hasten the progress of chronic diseases such as dementia, asthma and diabetes. 

While death rates caused by outdoor air pollution have reduced in about half the countries worldwide, they have also increased in around half mostly low or middle income countries.

In Asia the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre measures the passage of smoke haze and other air flows between ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, but a regulatory framework is lacking. A global assessment of air pollution legislation found that only one in three countries have legal mechanisms for managing or addressing transboundary air pollution, and only 43 per cent have a legal definition of air pollution. This assessment recommends measures to fortify air quality governance, such as a common global legal framework for ambient air quality standards and regional legal instruments which can hold member countries responsible and accountable.

One of the first international instruments to better regulate air pollution between countries, the 1979 Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution is an example of successful international cooperation to reduce the risk of transboundary air pollution based on an initial goal to prevent acid rain. 51 countries in Europe and the Americas are signatories to the convention, which includes eight protocols to address negative health and environmental consequences of excess pollutants such as ozone, black carbon, heavy metals and particulate matter. It is widely regarded as an example of successful international environmental cooperation, with significant reductions in sulphur and other pollutants attributed to it .

However, while death rates caused by outdoor air pollution have reduced in about half the countries worldwide, they have also increased in around half mostly low or middle income countries, causing more than 2 million deaths annually in Southeast Asia. There are also high concentrations of particulate matter in the Middle East, north Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa due to high concentrations of desert dust, which itself is predicted to increase due to climate change.

It is clear that there are many affinities between efforts to reduce carbon emissions and to improve air quality. Decarbonising transport and energy and reducing reliance on combustible and fossil fuels will have the dual benefits of improving physical health and the stability of the atmosphere. With the COP26 global climate summit about to get underway this month in Glasgow, participation in global events and international covenants are still critically important for reducing carbon emissions and reaching those elusive WHO targets for air quality.