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28 July 2021

With Greg Earl

Barrier Reef showdown

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.


The right reasons for saying no to nuclear first use

“The heated debates over no first use show how firmly many people in Washington still believe that US threats to use nuclear weapons first against China are credible. That leads them to overestimate Washington’s chances of using first use threats to prevail in a war with China ... This overestimation poses a real and present danger that the United States will start a war with China it cannot win.” Hugh White, East Asia Forum

Shouldering their fair share? The ANZUS allies in the Pacific islands

“In a desire to be seen to contribute its ‘fair share’ of military capability under the alliance, Australia needs to be careful that its actions do not counterproductively undermine its relationships with Pacific island states. Instead, alongside New Zealand, Australia should emphasise the importance of its non-military contributions to the ANZUS alliance and to the security of the Pacific island region.” Joanne Wallis & Anna Powles,The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

China threatens Australia with missile attack

“Unless we acquire missiles with ranges in excess of 4000 kilometres, we won’t be able to retaliate against any attack on us … So, resolving the threat posed by the Global Times depends on Washington making it clear to Beijing that any missile attack on Australia … would provoke an immediate response by the United States on China itself.” Paul Dibb, The Strategist (ASPI)


Australia struggles with moral obligation to aid Afghan partners

“Any effort by Australia to verify whether a former aide may be sympathetic to the Taliban and therefore a risk to Australia is hindered by the fact that Australia not only withdrew its forces from Afghanistan but also closed its embassy in the country.” Joshua Mcdonald, The Diplomat

Indonesia’s COVID-19 crisis

“Indonesia has relatively low public spending on health even compared to its South-East Asian neighbours, and it has a political system that encourages patronage politics ... The result is a healthcare system that – even before the current surge – was placing great strains on its largely female workforce.” Edward Aspinall, Australian Outlook (AIIA)


Until the World Shatters, book review by Michelle Aung Thin

“It is impossible to read Daniel Combs’ excellent Until the World Shatters without reflecting on the current crisis unfolding in Myanmar ... huge numbers of ordinary Myanmar people [have] joined the countrywide civil disobedience movement, refusing to work in order to disrupt the economy and halt the flow of funds to the junta. Their peaceful protests have been met with a disproportionate level of violence. To date, over 700 protestors have been killed and more than 5000 detained.” CONTINUE READING


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