28 July 2021
On Friday, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted not to downgrade the heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef – for now.
Australia has eight months to provide a progress report on the reef’s condition, which environment minister Sussan Ley says will be a “positive story”. During this period, the UN Glasgow Climate Change Conference will take place, at which Australia’s climate policies are expected to face scrutiny.
UNESCO’s earlier draft proposal to reclassify the site as “in danger” blindsided the Morrison government, forcing it to pursue a global campaign to prevent the change.
The government argued that the proposal was political, claiming UNESCO was singling out Australia due its climate change policies, had failed to do a site visit and had not taken into account recent moves to improve the reef’s water quality.
The government also appeared to blame the downturn on Australia–China relations, as China was the chair of the World Heritage Committee when the proposal was made.
But Friday’s vote did not appear to suggest any undue influence from China. Instead it seemed to reflect rising concern from European countries and environmental lobby groups about links between climate change and coral bleaching.
As the world’s most populous country and second biggest economy, China plays a significant role in the United Nation and touts it as the principal body for multilateral diplomacy. However, it is hard to discern the extent to which China uses its representatives to the United Nations to address bilateral tensions.
The Morrison government should be cautious about instinctively blaming China whenever it has a global problem. This dispute has shown that other forces can be at work.
G20 climate stalemate
The major economies of the Group of Twenty have cast a cloud over the prospect of establishing new global emission-reduction targets.
Environment and energy ministers from the G20 who met in Italy over the weekend were unable to settle on a time frame for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and coal use.
Italy, the chair of G20, has pushed for the issue to be revisited at the G20 leaders’ summit in late October, just ahead of the UN Glasgow Climate Change Conference.
The Group of Seven has been more decisive. After a series of meetings this year, member countries have made a qualified commitment to ending public funding of coal-fired power, both domestically and in overseas aid projects.
But the G7 member countries are all developed economies, and the G20 represents a mix of economies, both developed and developing. China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia were reportedly among the G20 member countries that rejected an agreement on coal. And India and Turkey issued dissenting statements, which emphasised the need for developing countries to receive special treatment.
The weekend’s discussions, and earlier ministerial meetings, have tested the international appetite for a broad global commitment to reaching net zero.
In the current edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, Richard Denniss and Allan Behm argue that Australian diplomats have played a double game in these debates – they have quietly defended the coal industry, while publicly supporting action on climate change.
Energy minister Angus Taylor used the recent G20 meeting to repeat the Morrison government’s mantra about using technology rather than taxation to deal with carbon pollution.
The current stalemate may give the government more confidence to effectively support the coal industry by resisting a commitment to a net-zero pathway.
Japan’s energy switch
Japan is the latest of Australia’s major trading partners to provide details of its plans to reduce fossil fuel usage, which would allow it to meet Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050.
In a draft energy plan released last week, Japan said renewable energy would account for 36 to 38 per cent of all of its electricity usage by 2030. Only three years ago, 22 to 24 per cent was the goal.
Japan imports more Australian coal than any other country, and it also imports the most Australian liquified natural gas, equal with China. These commodities are Australia’s second and third largest exports.
But some analysts say that LNG, generally seen as a cleaner fuel, could be the bigger loser if Japan cuts back on Australian fossil fuel imports. This raises questions about the viability of Australia’s plans to expand gas production.
In June, Scott Morrison and Suga announced an initiative on “decarbonisation through technology”. And Japan’s new ambassador to Australia, Shingo Yamagami, has been promoting a new trade relationship with Australia, which would see Japan using Australian hydrogen to meet its energy needs.
But if the two countries want their efforts to curb fossil fuel usage to be credible, they will need to be clearer on whether Australia will focus on producing “green” hydrogen, from water, or “blue” and “brown” hydrogen, from gas and coal.