Australia’s Climate of Discontent

by Richard Denniss in The Canberra Times


Originally published in The Canberra Times on July 22, 2023

Australia gives more aid to foreign fossil fuel companies than it does to our neighbours in the Pacific.

While the rhetoric of the Albanese government revolves around helping our nearest neighbours prepare for the existential threat of climate change, in reality we do far more to help the coal and gas industry causing that climate change.

Economics 101 tells us we should tax things we want less of and subsidise things we want more of, but successive Australian governments just can’t resist demands for subsidies from the fossil fuel industry. They are, of course, quite good at ignoring demands for climate action from Australian voters and Pacific Island nations alike. Not only has Minister for the Environment Tanya Plibersek already approved three new coal mines, the coal from which will release more than 116 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, the Albanese government’s first budget contained a $1.5 billion subsidy for the Middle Arm gas processing facility in Darwin Harbour. Actions speak louder than words.

The Minister for Infrastructure, Catherine King, claims the federal government’s support for Middle Arm is “not a subsidy for fossil fuels“. But documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal the government saw Middle Arm as a “key enabler” for gas exports from the Beetaloo Basin. Sadly, words spoken in private often say more than those publicly broadcast.

The $1.5 billion gift to the US-controlled gas facility is far more generous than any climate adaptation project Australia has ever funded in the Pacific, or anywhere else. While aid money could be well spent, the real danger to the Pacific is the abundance of greenhouse gas emissions our fossil fuel subsidies make way for.

The annual emissions from gas burnt at the new Betaloo Basin project, ‘enabled’ by subsidies to Darwin’s Middle Arm gas processing plant, will be far more than annual emissions from the entire Pacific.

It gets worse.

The Australian government says it’s concerned about China’s expansion in the Pacific and that it wants to forge closer relationships with Pacific Island nations to protect from strategic approaches to our north. Indeed, the government is so concerned about shoring up our relationships it has announced $1.9 billion in new defence and security assistance to Pacific Island nations. But the Pacific aren’t asking for defence spending to protect us, but to stop building new gas and coal mines to protect them.

Back in 2015 the then-president of Kiribati, Anote Tong wrote to all world leaders asking them to stop building new gas and coal mines. While Australia ignored his polite request, most Pacific nations agreed. Later that year the 15 countries of the Pacific Island Development Forum called for the Paris Agreement to be ambitious enough to save Kiribati, the Marshalls, Tokelau & Tuvalu, by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

Since those calls were made, the International Energy Agency has stated building new gas and coal mines is inconsistent with limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. Similarly, the UN Secretary-General has said current policies will lead to a 2.8-degree temperature rise by the end of the century, spelling catastrophe.

Pacific concerns about Australia’s fossil fuel expansion plans have only grown, but unlike foreign fossil fuel companies, our neighbours have been ignored.

Last month, during a webinar hosted by the Australia Institute, Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change, Ralph Regenvanu, said: “Climate policy needs to be something [Australia] deals with while it continues down the road of subsidising fossil fuels …[it’s] not supporting the Pacific in its climate ambitions and [it’s] not recognising the main security threat to the Pacific.”

In their efforts to publicly acknowledge Pacific climate concerns, the government is refusing to address the fossil fuel elephant in the room. Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, says we have no time to waste in tackling climate change at the same time as his government subsidises new gas projects. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, says helping the Pacific prepare for climate change is her priority, while her government prioritises the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industry over the interests of our “closest friends”.

There is no doubt the Albanese government has done more than the Morrison government in both climate policy and engagement with the Pacific. Labor’s promised investment in electricity transmission infrastructure will help the grid absorb more renewable energy and their promised fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles will fill an obvious hole in Australia’s climate policies. Likewise, Penny Wong visiting the Pacific Nations was a sign of long overdue respect. But it is Australia’s fossil fuel exports that pose the greatest risk to the Pacific, not the number of electric vehicles on our roads or the number of overseas trips our ministers make.

Australia is already the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind only Saudi Arabia and Russia, but unlike our domestic emission reduction targets, we have incredibly ambitious plans for fossil fuel expansion. The coal from the three new coal projects already approved by Ms Plibersek will put 116 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, but if the other 67 coal and 49 oil and gas projects in the development pipeline go ahead they will pour an incredible 4.8 billion tonnes into the atmosphere by 2030.

The Pacific aren’t asking much from Australia. They don’t want us to slash our current emissions or shut down our existing mines, they have simply asked us to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry, stop opening brand new coal and gas projects, and contribute more generously to help them cope with the climate change Australian fossil fuels have helped cause.

But rather than heed the simple requests of the Pacific, the Australian government is asking the Pacific to do something for them. Australia, a country on the brink of an enormous fossil fuel export expansion, wants the Pacific nations to join Australia in hosting a unit Climate Summit (COP) in 2026.

We knew our fossil fuel expansion plans meant we had no chance of securing on our own, so we turned to our near neighbours for some diplomatic cover. If only we put as much effort into transitioning away from fossil fuels as we put into enabling new ones, maybe we would be able to give something to our Pacific friends rather than ask something more of them.

Between the Lines Newsletter

The biggest stories and the best analysis from the team at the Australia Institute, delivered to your inbox every fortnight.

Sign up

General Enquiries

02 6130 0530

Media Enquiries

Luciana Lawe Davies Media Adviser

0457 974 636

RSS Feed

All news