As the Pacific Islands Forum comes to an end, Australia has yet again been shamed on a global stage for our inaction on climate change. The forum was held in Tuvalu, one of the lowest lying islands on Earth, where the effects of sea level rise are already being seen. For Tuvalu, a global commitment to limiting climate change to 1.5C is literally a question of survival.
By doing everything he could to water down the forum communique’s climate language, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, refused to listen to the words of Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, when he urged leaders to focus on “survival, not saving the economies of countries”.
However, in a country like Australia, even that is a false choice. Australia more so than almost any other country has the opportunity to prosper economically through decarbonisation. We can, as they say, have our cake and eat it too.
The pathway to global decarbonisation relies heavily on the shift from coal, oil and gas to renewable resources. In a decarbonised world not only do we power our homes and businesses with renewables, but we also power our cars, buses, trains and industry with wind, solar and storage. With technologies like electric vehicles, hydrogen buses and electromagnetic industrial heating, this is all eminently possible.
As a country with some of the best solar and wind resources in the world, vast areas of land, a low population and manufacturing base and strong trading relationships particularly in Asia, Australia is uniquely positioned to help decarbonise our region. Indeed, it is not only our Pacific neighbours who are asking for our help. Our biggest trading partners – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – are looking eagerly at Australia’s renewable resources to help them act on climate.
Already, there are plans in development to export solar energy to Singapore through a Sun Cable from the Northern Territory. Macquarie Capital is financing the development of the Asia Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia. This project, which has recently grown to 15GW of solar and wind, will not only power the mining operations of the Pilbara and increased onshore minerals refining, it will also generate renewable hydrogen that can be exported to our neighbours.
This week, Pacific leaders asked Australia to stop expanding our coal industry. As a country that has been exporting coal since 1799, this request came as an affront to our federal government. However, given that coal is the biggest cause of climate change and Australia’s largest contribution, we cannot be serious about stopping climate change without planning to move beyond coal.
While moving away from coal will have its challenges, it is possible. It is also better to restructure our economy deliberately, supporting those who work in the coal industry, than for these communities to be left to the whims of global market forces.
Already the Latrobe Valley Authority is showing how we might do this. From electric vehicle manufacturing, to investment in transport infrastructure, to more jobs in healthcare, their efforts to diversify the economy of the Latrobe Valley in Victoria are showing progress.
Restructuring our economy does not happen over night, but we need to recognise that it has already started. In the past three years $9bn have been invested in building renewable energy generation. According to Macromonitor, the renewables boom is “currently the largest contributor to overall growth in construction in Australia”, helping to keep our economy moving forward. However, this boom will not continue without new policy as the renewable energy target comes to an end.
With our economy stagnate and interest rates low, now is the time to invest in the future of Australia and in the process help ensure the survival of our neighbours.
However, if the moral and economic arguments for acting on climate change are insufficient to move our recalcitrant federal government, perhaps the geopolitical argument will be more persuasive.
China is actively working to strengthen its position in the Pacific, seeing this as a strategic location. Their efforts include backing the calls by Pacific leaders to act on climate and phase-out coal power, as well as direct support for infrastructure and renewable energy deployment in the Pacific. As a country that has globally committed to climate leadership, China has both the moral authority and the economic leverage to make Australia increasingly irrelevant. Scott Morison’s performance at the Pacific Island Forum has not helped this situation.
Australia’s regional and global influence will not grow unless we are fair dinkum about acting on climate change. Without greater domestic action, we may be able to throw our weight around at the Pacific Islands Forum, but we will slowly lose our geopolitical, economic and moral authority in a world that has committed to act on the climate crisis.
• Nicky Ison is a founding director of the Community Power Agency and a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney