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UN Climate Change Summit: A chance for Australia's environmental diplomacy

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22 September 2014 15:36

The UN Climate Change Summit is taking place in New York tomorrow, with attendance by several world leaders including US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Over the past weekend, nearly 300,000 people marched in the streets of New York to urge a global consensus on combating climate change through a binding protocol of action, which would be negotiated between now and the Conference of the Parties landmark meeting in Paris in November 2015. In a rare display of public support for climate change activism, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon marched alongside the campaigners.

People's Climate March, New York, 21 September 2014 (Flickr/Climate Action Network International)

Australia's delegation to the UN Climate Summit will not be led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott but rather by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, because Abbott has said his presence in parliament this week is essential. Some concerns have been raised by climate change activists as well as European leaders such as Connie Hedegaard, the EU's climate commissioner, about the message this may send to the world about the country's commitment to climate change action.

As one of the world's leading coal producers, it is easy to make presumptions about Abbott's decision, but let us consider the role Foreign Minister Julie Bishop can play instead. As the country's top diplomat, Bishop has a far closer linkage to international relations than Abbott, and she could use the Summit as a means to make connections with other Australian diplomatic initiatives.

The Government has already shown its commitment to link trade and aid with its 'economic diplomacy' initiative, so why not extend the idea to 'environmental diplomacy' as well?

An opportunity is likely to arise with the major recipients of Australia's fossil fuel exports, India and China. These two powers, accounting for a quarter of the world's population, are not sending their heads of state to the UN Summit. China's Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, will attend, as will India's Environment Minister and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Prakash Javadekar. Both governments are under pressure domestically to show some action on climate change. After initial vacillation, it appears China will make a major announcement about clear targets on emissions reduction.

There are opportunities to link Australia's relations with major powers through our environmental technology sector just as much as through our mining industry.

For instance, Australia has excellent technological capabilities in renewable energy research and infrastructure development. The world's largest solar research facility is currently under construction in south-eastern Queensland and there are numerous Australian companies such as Barefoot Power that offer innovative solutions to meeting rural electricity challenges. Then there is the nuclear fuel issue, which has already been a major point of Australia-India diplomacy, and which will have direct carbon reduction implications if properly managed.

Australia and New Zealand are also likely to see a rise in environmental refugees from small-island states that are already showing palpable impacts of sea-level rise. Developing a clear climate change adaptation framework with an international relations nexus can also support the Government's immigration control priorities. 

The case for environmental diplomacy is thus just as cogent as the one for economic diplomacy, and the UN Climate Change Summit should be used by Australia to begin charting our foreign affairs through such linkages.

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