Australia is pushing back against calls from Pacific Island leaders to ditch its commitment to coal mining to help combat climate change, saying its neighbors need to respect the country’s reliance on the industry.
The world’s second-biggest coal exporter is increasingly a flash point in the battle against carbon emissions after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government was reelected in May on a fossil fuel-friendly platform. Now Australia is under fire from nations already threatened from the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels.
Fiji has led the attack on Australia’s reluctance to give up the fuel at an annual Pacific Islands summit this week in Tuvalu. Australia must “do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
But there are no signs that Morrison, who arrived at the gathering Wednesday, will compromise. “We won’t have a communique where coal or coal-fired generation, or phasing it out now, is a realistic proposition,” Australia’s Pacific Minister, Alex Hawke, said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. The nation “has a red-line position on coal.”
Coal might be in terminal decline in global terms, but it still plays an important role in power generation in Asia and the Australian economy, where combined sales reached nearly A$70 billion ($48 billion) in fiscal 2019. In June, Adani Group’s controversial coal project was approved, potentially opening up a new mining region, and Morrison’s center-right government continues to be a strong supporter of the industry.
An announcement that Canberra would divert A$500 million from its foreign aid budget to boost efforts to combat the effects of climate change in the Pacific failed to appease its partners. Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said giving money should not be used as an excuse not to take necessary steps to cut emissions.
Tuvalu, a nation of just 11,000 people crammed onto low lying atolls, is already experiencing the effects of global warming as rising sea levels cause frequent flooding. That has led to speculation that the entire population might ultimately need to relocate.
Pacific Island leaders were becoming more assertive in calls for other countries to take action on emissions reduction, said Mark Howden, Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. “What they’re saying is: you can’t buy us off by putting money on the table for other activities such as ’resilience building’, we want you to address the core issue, not get us to address the symptoms.”
Morrison has said Australia will meet its Paris Agreement target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but has no clear policy agenda for meeting it. In fact, the country’s emissions have been on a rising trajectory in recent years as a number of giant gas projects have started operations.
“To a large extent the government has backed itself into a corner on climate change and it’s not easy to see a way out of that corner,” said Howden. “That’s unfortunate, because in many ways Australia is foregoing major opportunities by being in this position where we haven’t got effective climate change polices, not just on energy but on a whole range of issues.”
Meanwhile, the government’s love of coal — Morrison once brandished a lump of the stuff on the floor of parliament to demonstrate his support — is increasingly at odds with a global environmental movement that says continuing to use the fuel is incompatible with efforts to contain global warming.