Is Malcolm Turnbull the only Liberal who understands economics and climate science – or the only one who’ll talk about it?


Darren England/AAP

Richard Denniss, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityYesterday, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was unceremoniously dumped as chair of the New South Wales government’s climate advisory board, just a week after being offered the role. His crime? He questioned the wisdom of building new coal mines when the existing ones are already floundering.

No-one would suggest building new hotels in Cairns to help that city’s struggling tourism industry. But among modern Liberals it’s patently heresy to ask how rushing to green light 11 proposed coal mines in the Hunter Valley helps the struggling coal industry.

Coal mines in the Hunter are already operating well below capacity and have been laying off workers in the face of declining world demand for coal, plummeting renewable energy prices and trade sanctions imposed by China. The problem isn’t a shortage of supply, but an abundance.

The simple truth is building new coal mines will simply make matters worse, especially for workers in existing coal mines that have already been mothballed or had their output scaled back.

coal mine in the Hunter Valley
Turnbull has called for a moratorium on new coal mines in the Hunter Valley, such as the one pictured above.
Dean Lewins/AAP

It gets worse. Once an enormous, dusty, noisy open cut coal mine is approved, the agriculture, wine, tourism and horse breeding industries – all major employers in the Hunter Valley – are reluctant to invest nearby. While building new coal mines hurts workers in existing coal mines, the mere act of approving new coal mines harms investment in job creation in the industries that offer the Hunter a smooth transition from coal.

The NSW planning department doesn’t have a plan for how many new coal mines are needed to meet world demand. Nor does it have a plan for how much expansion of rail and port infrastructure is required to meet the output of all the new mines being proposed.




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That’s why my colleagues and I recently called for a moratorium on new coal mines in the Hunter until such plans were made explicit. Just as you wouldn’t approve 1,000 new homes in a town where the sewerage system was already at capacity, it makes no sense to approve 11 new coal mines in a region that couldn’t export that much coal if it tried.

But if there’s one thing that defines the debate about coal in Australia, its that it makes no sense.

Just as it made no sense for then-treasurer Scott Morrison to wave a lump of coal around in parliament in 2017, it makes no sense for right-wing commentators to pretend approving new mines will help create jobs in coal mining. And it makes no sense for the National Party to ignore the pleas of farmers to protect their land from the damage coal mines do.

Scott Morrison with a lump of coal to Question Time in 2017.
Scott Morrison took a lump of coal to Question Time in 2017.
Lukas Coch/AAP

On the surface, Turnbull’s support for a pause on approving new mines while a plan is developed is old-fashioned centrism. It protects existing coal workers from new, highly automated mines, it protects farmers and it should make those concerned with climate change at least a bit happy. Win. Win. Win.

But there’s no room for a sensible centre in the Australian coal debate. And when someone even suggests the industry might not be set to grow, its army of loyal parliamentary and media supporters swing into action.

Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon said Turnbull “wants to make the Upper Hunter a coal-mine-free zone”. The Nationals’ Matt Canavan suggested stopping coal exports was “an inhumane policy to keep people in poverty”. The head of the NSW Minerals Council suggested 12,000 jobs were at risk.

But of course, the opposite is true. Turnbull’s proposal to protect existing coal workers from competition from new mines would save jobs, not threaten them. He didn’t suggest coal mines be shut down tomorrow, or even early. And, given existing coal mines are running so far below capacity, his call has no potential to impact coal exports.




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Labor politicians need not fear: Queenslanders are no more attached to coal than the rest of Australia


Coal workers
Opening new coal mines won’t help save the jobs of existing coal workers.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Predictably, the Murdoch press ran a relentlessly misleading campaign in support of the coal industry and in opposition to their least favourite Liberal PM. But surprisingly, the NSW government rolled over in record time.

While the government might think appeasing the coal industry will play well among some older regional voters, they must know such kowtowing is a gift to independents such as Zali Steggall, and a fundamental threat to inner-city Liberals such as Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski and Trent Zimmerman.

The decision to dump Turnbull might have bought NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian some respite from attacks from the Daily Telegraph. But such denial of economics and climate science will provide no respite for existing coal workers in shuttered coal mines or the agriculture and tourism industry that is looking to expand.

No doubt the National Party are pleased with their latest scalp. But it must be remembered this is the party that last year wanted to wage a war against koalas on behalf of property developers. Such political instincts might help the Nationals fend off the threat from One Nation in regional areas but it does nothing to retain votes in leafy Liberal strongholds that deliver most Liberal seats.




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Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


The Conversation


Richard Denniss, Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These Aussie teens have launched a landmark climate case against the government. Win or lose, it’ll make a difference



Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan.
Equity Generation Lawyers

Laura Schuijers, University of Melbourne

On Tuesday, eight young Australians aged 13-17 filed a class action seeking an injunction to prevent federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving a new coal project expansion.

They are bringing their case to the Federal Court. They argue if Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion in New South Wales is approved, it will contribute to climate change which endangers their future.




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Saying the environment minister owes the young plaintiffs a duty of care is a novel approach. In their view, signing off on a new coal project will breach that duty. Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful.

Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.

What is the case about?

The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning it will expand a mine that has already been approved, increasing its coal production by about 25%, and emissions by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.

Like many mining proposals, this one has been divisive. Farmers worry about competing for water, and the local community has expressed concern over the environmental record of the coal company.

Yet in August, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the proposal, finding the expansion is in the public interest, given the forecast jobs and revenue. It has not yet received federal approval.

What are the teenagers arguing?

The young plaintiffs are not bringing their case under environmental law, which would be the traditional way to launch a legal challenge objecting to a coal mine.

Environmental law invites government decision-makers to balance competing concerns — such as economic benefits versus environmental impact — with no clear stipulation as to how much weight to give each relevant factor.

There is limited recourse to argue a decision is wrong because the positive and negative impacts were not given particular priority by a minister. This means decision-making on major projects is largely within the political realm.

Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing the environment minister shouldn’t approve the coal proposal because doing so would breach a duty of care owed by the minister to protect them from the harmful impacts of climate change. This includes more frequent extreme weather events, and destruction of the natural systems that support human life.

The case has parallels with a landmark Dutch case, where it was successfully argued in 2019 that the Dutch Government breached its duty of care to its citizens through inadequate action on climate change.




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For the Australian case to succeed, the Court will first need to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.

Then, the plaintiffs would need to establish that the duty would be breached by the environment minister signing off on the coal project.

Will it succeed?

Establishing both these things is likely to be very difficult in our legal context. From past cases, we know Australian courts have been reluctant to find a causal link between climate change and individual projects, even large mines. However, this link was found in a NSW case last year.

The court is likely to look closely at the particular relationship between the minister and the vulnerable young people, who will be strongly impacted by climate change but have no voting rights. It will consider whether they represent a particular class of individuals, in relation to which the minister has a responsibility.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers recently highlighted a case that potentially paves the way to support this idea. In 2016, the Federal Court found the immigration minister Peter Dutton owed a duty of care to a vulnerable refugee with a history of trauma, who was detained on Nauru.

One thing in the current case’s favour is that, similar to the Dutch case, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. If they were, the difficulty for the courts to determine what future obligation the government might have to pay out young people would, almost undoubtedly, prohibit success.

What’s also interesting about this case, unlike the Dutch case or the famous Juliana case that was recently quashed in the US, is that it’s not asking the government for broad-scale policy action on climate change. It’s only concerned with one coal mine approval. This is a more straightforward remedy which a court could be more willing to grant.

Beating the odds

If the case successfully established a duty and that it was breached, this would open up the possibility future coal approval decisions would also breach the duty — somewhat of a Pandora’s box.

Although we will have to wait and see what the Court says, the suit will draw attention to the government’s climate policies, whether or not it succeeds.

If the case succeeds, it might compel the government to stop approving any coal mines that would significantly contribute to climate change. If it doesn’t, it will remind us that it’s up to the government to respond to the threats climate change poses, rather than the courts.

Either way, the teenagers in this case are part of a growing number of people willing to find creative avenues to pursue action, even if it means taking a long shot. And beating the odds is exactly how the law tends to evolve.




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Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws


The Conversation


Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



Shutterstock

Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
Shutterstock

Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




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The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




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Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




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The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

45,000 renewables jobs are Australia’s for the taking – but how many will go to coal workers?



Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, University of Technology Sydney

As the global renewables transition accelerates, the future for coal regions has become a big worry. This raises an important question: can renewables create the right jobs in the right places to employ former coal workers?

According to our new research, the answer in many cases is “yes”. Renewable energy jobs provide a good match for existing coal jobs across a range of blue and white-collar occupations, including construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, site administrators and mechanical technicians.

But about one-third of coal workers, such as drillers and machine operators, cannot simply switch over to renewables jobs. So as our economy pivots to renewables, planning and investment is needed to help coal regions survive.

Some renewables jobs could be filled by coal workers.
Tim Wimbourne/AAP

Renewables jobs: a snapshot

Our research, commissioned by the Clean Energy Council, is the first large-scale survey of renewable energy employment in Australia.

We surveyed more than 450 Australian renewable energy businesses, covering large scale wind, solar and hydro, rooftop solar and batteries. We wanted to find out how many people were employed, and in what jobs.




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We then projected employment until 2035 using three scenarios for the future of the electricity market, developed by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Our results suggest renewable energy can be a major source of jobs in the next 15 years. But the trajectories are very different depending on government COVID-19 stimulus measures and wider energy policy.

Policy crossroads

We found the renewable energy sector currently employs about 26,000 people. Temporary construction and installation jobs now comprise 75% of the renewable energy labour market, but as the sector grows, this will change (more on that later).

Australia’s renewable energy target was reached last year, and has not been replaced. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia this caused renewables investment to fall by 50% last year compared to 2018. Under a “central” scenario where these policies continued, 11,000 renewable jobs would be lost by 2022.

Under the right policies, there could be an average of 35,000 renewables jobs annually in Australia until 2035.
Michael Buholzer/Reuters

We then examined a “step change” scenario where Australian policy settings were in line with meeting the Paris climate agreement. This would create a jobs boom: renewable energy employment would grow to 45,000 by 2025 and average around 35,000 jobs each year to 2035. Up to two-thirds are in regional areas.

Under all scenarios, job growth is strongest in rooftop solar and wind. Most are in the construction and installation phase, comprising both ongoing and project-based jobs in trades, as well as technicians and labourers. But by 2035, as many as half of renewable energy jobs could be ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance.




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Renewable energy jobs will be higher than our projections. We excluded employment areas such as building electricity transmission networks, bioenergy, professional services, renewable hydrogen, growth in minerals needed for renewable energy, and jobs in heavy industry such as “green” steel.

Renewables vs coal jobs

All up, coal mining in Australia employs about 40,000 people. As mentioned above, renewable energy jobs could grow to 45,000 by 2025 – and more once other sectors are included.

Australia’s renewable energy industry already employs considerably more people than the 10,500 working in the domestic coal sector – mostly thermal coal mining and power generation.

About 75% of coal mined in Australia is exported. About 24,000 people work in thermal coal mining for both domestic use and export – slightly fewer than the current renewable energy workforce.

Employment in renewable energy and coal.
Author supplied

New renewables jobs in coal regions

Around two-thirds of renewable energy jobs could be created in regional areas. These would be distributed more widely than coal sector jobs.

The leading coal mining states, NSW and Queensland, have the biggest share of renewable energy jobs under all scenarios.

AEMO has identified “renewable energy zones” where most large-scale renewable energy is expected to be located. In both NSW and Queensland, some of these zones overlap with the coal workforce. In NSW, the Central West zone could also create employment in the Hunter region. In general, though, many renewable energy jobs will be located in other regions and the capital cities.




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In terms of occupations, there is overlap between coal and renewable energy. These include construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, mechanical trades, office managers and contract administrators and drivers.

The timing and location of these renewables jobs will influence whether they can be a source of alternative jobs for coal workers. Re-training of coal workers would also be required.

But there is no direct job overlap for the semi-skilled machine operators such as drillers, which account for more than one-third of the coal workforce.

Renewable Energy Zones and coal mining employment in Queensland.
Author supplied
Renewable energy zones and coal mining employment in NSW.
Author supplied

Planning for the decline

Renewable energy can meaningfully help in the transition for coal regions. But it won’t replace all lost coal jobs, and planning and investment is needed to avoid social and economic harm.

Coal regions need industry development plans and investment to diversify their economies to other industries, including renewables. Almost half our coal workers are aged under 40, so Australia will not be able to follow Germany and Spain’s lead by relying on early retirement schemes.

At some point, demand for our coal exports will collapse – be it due to the falling cost of renewables, or policies to address climate change. If we don’t start preparing now, the consequences for coal communities will be dire.The Conversation

Some coal workers can be retrained to work in renewables, but others cannot.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently



AAP/Lukas Coch

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Because we are rich in coal and gas, Australia has been plagued with two decades of wars over climate policy. The wars have claimed three prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. They have also, in the words of journalist Alan Kohler,

ruined Australia’s ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything.

The response to the pandemic shows that consensus and effective, evidence-based policy are not impossible for Australia’s politicians. Faced with a crisis of life and death, they can put aside ideology and stare down vested interests.

The optimists among us hope they can do this with the life and death crises humanity is facing as the planet heats, and that the terrible fires last summer will have convinced our leaders climate change is real, and effective action urgent. So far, the calls for urgent action are louder from business than from political leaders. Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, has linked restoring growth after the pandemic to the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The federal government, by contrast, is championing gas as a “transition fuel” between coal and renewables. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked chair of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission, Nev Power, has strong links to the gas industry.

Calling gas a “transition fuel” at least admits the need for a transition. But gas also contributes to the planet’s heating, and the federal government has no plausible plan to meet Australia’s Paris target, nor to ramp it up, which must be done for a safe future.




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The grip that coal and gas has on our political elites goes back to the 1960s, when minerals replaced wool as the mainstay of our commodity exports. Iron ore and coal led the way.

About the same time, mining’s social licence was being challenged by Indigenous Australians, who objected to mining on their traditional lands, and by environmentalists concerned about mining’s destructive impact on natural habitats. The miners’ response was a concerted public relations campaign to align their interests with the national interest by convincing Australians their prosperity depended on mining and should not be curtailed.

In this, the miners have been spectacularly successful. First, in the 1980s, they stymied the implementation of the Hawke Labor government’s plan for uniform land rights legislation, which would include protection of sacred sites, the right to royalties and a veto over mining on Indigenous land.

In Australia, unlike other common law countries, the Crown owns the minerals, so the veto would have given Indigenous owners more rights than freehold owners. Miners launched a furious public campaign centred on the argument that Indigenous Australians should not have special rights.

A decade later, after the High Court determined in the Mabo and Wik judgements that forms of native title had survived European settlement, the miners fought again to make sure the resulting legislation did not include any veto over mining; and it didn’t.

Second, they have delayed effective government action on climate change. At the end of the century, as pressure mounted for a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, Australia’s coal producers organised to prevent the federal government from signing international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Their core argument was that mining underpinned Australia’s wealth, but they also spread scepticism about climate change amongst conservative elites, turning it into an identity marker for the Australian right.

Under John Howard, fossil fuel advocates gained extraordinary access to government decision-making on climate and energy policy. This access was not given to environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) or climate scientists. So much for balance.

The power of the fossil fuel lobby was weaker after Howard lost the 2007 election. Later, it was unable to prevent the Gillard government from implementing a price on carbon and establishing a series of agencies to advance action on climate change.

But with Tony Abbott as prime minister, the industry’s power was back. Scepticism about climate science spread to science and expertise generally, undermining the federal government’s commitment to innovation and research. The fossil fuel lobby is not solely to blame for the Coalition’s philistinism under Abbott, but it bears some responsibility for its self-interested spreading of climate scepticism.




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The mining lobby’s third success has been to capture the National Party and turn it into the party of coal and coal seam gas, even when extracting these destroys the good agricultural land on which our food security depends. This is an astonishing achievement.

In March 2019, on Network 10’s The Project, Waleed Aly asked Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict?

Off the top of his head, McCormack could not name one. Mining has so successfully aligned itself with perceptions of the national interest that the National Party now champions the jobs of miners more energetically than the livelihoods of the farmers it once regarded as the heart of the nation.

The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that governments are our risk managers of last resort. Ours, both state and federal, have been prepared to inflict massive economic pain on businesses and individuals to protect our health, and we are grateful.

As we face the much larger but more slow-moving crisis of the heating planet, governments must stare down the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, for all our sakes, even if this inflicts on them some economic pain.

If they can do it for the pandemic, they can do it for climate change.

Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is out today.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia listened to the science on coronavirus. Imagine if we did the same for coal mining



Dan Peled/AAP

Matthew Currell, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Flinders University

Australia’s relative success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is largely due governments taking expert advice on a complex problem. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of decisions on projects that threaten the environment – most notably, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

Our research published today in Nature Sustainability documents how state and federal governments repeatedly ignored independent scientific advice when assessing and approving the Adani mine’s groundwater plans.

We interrogated scientific evidence available to governments and Adani over almost a decade. Our analysis shows governments failed to compel Adani to fully investigate the environmental risks posed by its water plans, despite concerns raised by scientists.

There is also evidence the government approval decisions were influenced by the political climate and pressure exerted by members of government.

Our findings come as the Morrison government conducts a ten-yearly review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It is critical these laws – Australia’s most important environmental legislation – are reformed to put rigorous, independent science at the core.

Advice ignored

In mid-2019, the federal and Queensland governments approved groundwater management plans for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. It granted the company unlimited access to groundwater in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

We and other experts warned the mine threatens to damage aquifers, rivers and ecosystems – in particular, the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. This system contains more than 150 wetlands which support rare plant communities found nowhere else on earth.

The springs are of major cultural significance to the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

We analysed the full suite of evidence on the groundwater plans from agencies and scientists with expertise in hydro-geology. The evidence, provided to state and federal environment ministers, spanned almost a decade and included at least six independent scientific reviews.

The evidence highlighted major shortcomings, and gaps in knowledge and data.




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Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


For example in 2013, the federal government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) said key geological characteristics in Adani’s groundwater model were not consistent with available field data.

Expert evidence from court-appointed hydro-geology witnesses in the Land Court of Queensland reiterated this concern and raised new questions over whether the source aquifer for the Doongmabulla Springs had been incorrectly identified.

Subsequent joint reviews by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February and June 2019 found Adani had failed to conclusively resolve these issues. The agencies also identified further flaws in Adani’s modelling, including interaction between groundwater and the Carmichael River that was again not consistent with field evidence.

The CSIRO and Geoscience Australia concluded the model was “not suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

Moses 3 Lagoon in the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. Source: Land Services of Coast and Country Inc (2014)

Governments under pressure

The federal government received the reviews from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February 2019. It did not publicly release them until then-environment minister Melissa Price announced approval of the groundwater plans on April 8. This was effectively the final federal approval the mine needed to proceed.

Media reports at the time suggested Price had been pressured by members of her government to issue approval before the election. What’s more, her department reportedly pushed the CSIRO to endorse Adani’s plans in just hours, and in the absence of critical information.

Within 48 hours of Adani’s approval being announced, the government called a federal election.




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Morrison government approves next step towards Adani coal mine


The Coalition was returned to power at the election. Federal Labor suffered heavy losses in regional Queensland – a result many claimed was due to their lukewarm support for the Adani mine.

The Queensland Labor government was also required to sign off on the groundwater plans. Following the federal election result, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk directed that the assessment be completed quickly. The state approved the plans within four weeks.

This was despite being provided a scientific analysis by authors of this article and others, outlining key remaining scientific deficiencies in the groundwater plans.

Once-in-a-decade chance

Our analysis exposes flaws in how evidence informs major government decisions. It also shows why reform of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is so urgent.

The laws are currently under review. Many reputable organisations and scholars have proposed ways the legislation can better protect the environment, increase its independence from government and put science at the core.

Independent scientific committees, such as the federal IESC, are commissioned by governments to advise on mining proposals. We suggest such committees be granted greater powers to request specific data and studies from mining companies to address knowledge gaps before advice is issued.

Alternatively – or in addition – a new independent national commission should be established to oversee environmental impact assessments conducted by mining and other development proponents.

This commission should be empowered to interrogate and resolve key scientific uncertainties, free from political interference. Its recommendations to government should take into account a wide range of expert advice and public feedback.

Doongmabulla Springs, a desert oasis scientists say is at risk from the Adani mine.
Flickr

This would not only improve the evidence base for decisions, but may also speed up assessments – ensuring more effective resolution of uncertainties that often lead to protracted conflict and debate about a mine’s impacts.

Such reform is urgently needed. Australia is suffering unprecedented water stress, environmental harm and declining trust in government.

Australian governments listened to the science when it needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19. The same approach is needed if we’re to preserve the places we love and the ecosystems we depend on.




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An Adani spokesperson provided the following response to the claims raised by the authors:

Adani’s Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems Management Plan (GDEMP) was finalised and approved by both the Australian and Queensland governments almost 12 months ago, bringing to an end more than eight years of heavily scrutinised planning and approvals processes.

The approvals were confirmation that the GDEMP complies with all regulatory conditions, following an almost two-year process of rigorous scientific inquiry, review and approvals. This included relevant independent reviews by Australia’s pre-eminent scientific organisations CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.

There are more than 270 conditions within the mine approvals to protect the natural environment and more than 100 of those relate to groundwater.

We’re now getting on with construction of the Carmichael Mine and Rail project, having awarded more than $750 million in contracts to the benefit of regional Queenslanders.

We remain on track to create more than 1,500 direct jobs during the construction and ramp up of our project and some further 6,750 indirect jobs. At a time when our country is facing some of its toughest challenges, we’re determined to deliver on our commitments of jobs and opportunities.The Conversation

Matthew Currell, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Professor of Hydrogeology, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Senior lecturer in hydrogeology, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



Shutterstock

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




Read more:
While we fixate on coronavirus, Earth is hurtling towards a catastrophe worse than the dinosaur extinction


As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




Read more:
Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




Read more:
Albanese says we can’t replace steelmaking coal. But we already have green alternatives


Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




Read more:
When it comes to climate change, Australia’s mining giants are an accessory to the crime


And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

BlackRock is the canary in the coalmine. Its decision to dump coal signals what’s next


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, that it will dump more than half a billion dollars in thermal coal shares from all of its actively managed portfolios, might not seem like big news.

Announcements of this kind have come out steadily over the past couple of years.

Virtually all the major Australian and European banks and insurers, and many other global institutions, have already announced such policies.

According to the Unfriend Coal Campaign, insurance companies have stopped covering roughly US$8.9 trillion of coal investments – more than one-third (37%) of the coal industry’s global assets, and stopped offering reinsurance to 46% of them.

Blackrock matters because it is big

The announcement matters, in part because of Blackrock’s sheer size.

It is the world’s largest investor, with a total of $US7 trillion in funds under its control. Its announcement it will “put climate change at the center of its investment strategy” raises questions about the soundness of smaller financial institutions that remain committed to coal and to a carbon-based economy.


Exract from BlackRock’s letter to clients, January 14, 2020

Blackrock is also important because its primary business is index funds, that are meant to replicate entire markets.

So far these funds are not affected by the divestment policy. BlackRock’s iShares United States S&P 500 Index fund, for instance, has nearly US$23 billion in assets, including as much as US$1 billion in energy investments.

But the contradiction between the company’s new activist stance and the passive replication of an energy-heavy index such as Australia’s is obvious. The pressure to find a solution will grow.

In time, the entire share market will be affected

One solution might be for large mining companies such as BHP to dump their coal assets in order to remain part of both Blackrock’s actively managed (stock picking) and passively managed (all stocks) portfolios.

Another might be the development of index funds from which firms reliant on fossil fuels are excluded. It is even possible that the compilers of stock market indexes will themselves exclude these firms.

The announcement has big implications for the Australian government.




Read more:
Fossil fuel campaigners win support from unexpected places


Blackrock chief executive Laurence Fink noted that climate change has become the top issue raised by clients. He said it would soon affect all all investments – everything from municipal bonds to mortgages for homes.

Once investors start assessing government bonds in terms of climate change, Australia’s government will be in serious trouble.

Australia’s AAA rating will be at risk

The bushfire catastrophe and the government’s inadequate response have shown the world Australia is both among the countries most exposed to climate catastrophe and one of the worst in terms of contributions to solutions.

Once bond investors follow the lead of Blackrock and other financial institutions, divestment of Australian government bonds will follow.

This process has already started, with the decision of Sweden’s central bank to unload its holdings of Australian government bonds.

Taken in isolation, Sweden’s move had virtually no effect on Australia’s bond prices and yields. But the most striking feature of the divestment movement so far is the speed with which it has grown from symbolic gestures to a severe constraint on funding for the firms it touches.




Read more:
Climate change: why Sweden’s central bank dumped Australian bonds


The fact that the Adani corporation was unable to find a single bank willing to fund its Carmichael mine is an indication of the pressure that will come to bear.

The effects might be felt before large-scale divestment takes place. Ratings agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poors are supposed to anticipate risks to bondholders before they materialise.

It’ll make inaction expensive

Once there is a serious threat of large-scale divestment in Australian bonds, the agencies will be obliged to take this into account in setting Ausralia’s credit rating. The much-prized AAA rating is likely to be an early casualty.

That would mean higher interest rates for Australian government bonds which would flow through the entire economy, including the home mortgage rates mentioned in the Blackrock statement.

The government’s case for doing nothing about climate change (other than cashing in on past efforts) has been premised on the “economy-wrecking” costs of serious action.

But as investments associated with coal are increasingly seen as toxic, we run an increasing risk that inaction will cause greater damage.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Adani beware: coal is on the road to becoming completely uninsurable



Insurers have to protect themselves against foreseeable risks. For insurers of fossil fuel projects, those risks are growing.
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John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by Suncorp that it will no longer insure new thermal coal projects, along with a similar announcement by QBE Insurance a few months earlier, brings Australia into line with Europe where most major insurers have broken with coal.

US firms have been a little slower to move, but Chubb announced a divestment policy in July, and Liberty has confirmed it will not insure Australia’s Adani project.

Other big firms such as America’s AIG are coming under increasing pressure.

Even more than divestment of coal shares by banks and managed funds, the withdrawal of insurance has the potential to make coal mining and coal-fired power generation businesses unsustainable.

As the chairman and founder of Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has shown in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a sufficiently rich developer can use its own resources to finance a coal mine that banks won’t touch.




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Echoes of 2008: Could climate change spark a global financial crisis?


But without insurance, mines can’t operate.

(Adani claims to have insurers for the Carmichael project, but has declined to reveal their names.)

Why are insurers abandoning coal?

By the nature of their business, insurers cannot afford to indulge the denialist fantasies still popular in some sectors of industry. Damage caused by climate disasters is one of their biggest expenses, and insurers are fully aware that that damage is set to rise over time.

Even so, a sufficiently hard-headed company might choose to work both sides of the street – continuing to do business with fossil fuel companies, while also writing more expensive insurance against climate damage.

The bigger problem insurers face is the risk of litigation holding fossil fuel companies responsible for climate-related damage. For the moment, this is a potential rather than an immediate risk.

As US insurer AIG, yet to announce a divestment policy, has observed:

Based on our monitoring, while the overall volume of litigation activity has increased, past litigation seems to have largely been unsuccessful on numerous grounds including difficulties in determining and attributing fault and liability to a particular company, and the judiciary’s deference to the political branches of government on questions relating to climate change.

Recent development suggest these difficulties will be overcome.

It’s becoming easier to finger climate culprits…

Until recently, the most immediate problem facing potential litigants has been demonstrating that an event was the result of climate change as opposed to something else, such as random fluctuations in climatic conditions.

Scientific progress on this “extreme event attribution problem” has been rapid.

It is now possible to say with confidence that climate change is causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and weather-related events such as extreme heatwaves, drought, heavy rains, tropical storms and bushfires.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has highlighted three extremes in 2016 that would not have occurred if not for the added influence of climate change:

  • a persistent area of unusually warm water that lingered off the Alaskan coast, causing reduced marine productivity and other ecological disruptions

  • the extreme heatwave that happened in Asia, killing hundreds and destroying crops

  • the overall global atmospheric heat record set that year.

…and to allocate liability

The second line of defence against climate litigation that has held so far is the difficulty of imputing damage to the companies that burn fossil fuels.

While it is true that all weather events have multiple causes, in many circumstances climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been a necessary condition for those events to take place.

Courts routinely use arguments about necessary conditions to determine liability.

For example, a spark from a power line might cause a bushfire on a hot, dry, windy day, but would be harmless on a wet cold day. That can be enough to establish liability on the part of the company that operates the power line.

These issues are playing out in California, where devastating fires in 2017 caused damage estimated at US$30 billion and drove the biggest of the power companies, PG&E, into bankruptcy.

As a result there has been pressure to loosen liability laws, leaving the cost of future disasters to be borne by Californians in general, and their insurers.

Lawyers will be looking for someone to sue.

Adani is a convenient target

The question facing potential litigants is whether any single company contributes enough to climate change to make it meaningfully liable for particular disaster.

Adani’s Carmichael mine provides a convenient example.

Adani says the 10 million tonnes of coal it plans to mine will produce only 240,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but this is semantic trickery. The firm is referring only to so-called “scope 2” emissions associated with the mining process itself.

When the coal is burned it might produce an extra 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, amounting to about 0.05% of global emissions.

A 0.1% share of the damage associated with the California fires is US$15 million, enough to be worth suing for. Other similarly sized mines will face similar potential liabilities.

Once a precedent is established, any company in the business of producing or burning fossil fuels on a large scale can expect to be named in a regular stream of suits seeking substantial damages.

When governments are successfully sued…

The remaining line of defence for companies responsible for emissions is the history of courts in attributing climate change to decisions by governments rather than corporations.

In the Netherlands, a citizen action group called Urgenda has won a case against the Dutch government arguing it has breached its legal duty of care by not taking appropriate steps to significantly restrain greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

The government is appealing, but it has lost every legal round so far. Sooner or later, this kind of litigation will be successful. Then, governments will look for another party that can be sued instead of them.

…they’ll look for someone else to blame

Insurance companies are an easy target with deep pockets. Despite its hopeful talk quoted above, AIG would find it very difficult to avoid paying up if Californian courts found the firms it insured liable for their contributions to a climate-related wildfires or floods.

This is not a message coal-friendly governments in the US or Australia want to hear.

But the decision of Suncorp to dump coal, just a couple of months after the re-election of the Morrison government, makes it clear that businesses with a time horizon measured in decades cannot afford wishful thinking. They need to protect themselves against what they can see coming.




Read more:
Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?


The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?



Pacific leaders don’t want to talk about China’s rising influence – they want Scott Morrison to make a firm commitment to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Tess Newton Cain, The University of Queensland

This week’s Pacific Islands Forum comes at an important time in the overall trajectory of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s very personal commitment to an Australian “stepping up” in the Pacific.

To paraphrase the PM, you have to show up to step up. And after skipping last year’s Pacific Islands Forum, Morrison has certainly been doing a fair amount of showing up around the region, with visits to Vanuatu and Fiji at the beginning of the year and the Solomon Islands immediately after his election victory.

Add to this his recent hosting of the new PNG prime minister, James Marape, and it is clear there has been significant energy devoted to establishing personal relationships with some of the leaders he will sit down with this week.

An ‘existential threat’ to the region

Regional politics and diplomacy in the Pacific are not for the faint of heart. It’s clear from the tone of recent statements by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the minister for international development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, that there is some disquiet ahead of the Tuvalu get-together.

And with good reason. For some time, the leaders of the region have been becoming increasingly vocal about the lack of meaningful action from Canberra when it comes to climate change mitigation.




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Yes, Morrison ‘showed up’ in the Pacific, but what did he actually achieve?


Most recently, ten of the Pacifc Islands Development Forum (PIDF) members signed the Nadi Bay Declaration, which advocated a complete move away from coal production and specifically criticised using “Kyoto carryover credits” as a means of achieving Paris targets on reducing emissions.

While this body does not have the regional clout of the Pacific Islands Forum, its membership includes key players, notably Fiji, Tuvalu, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose leaders have all spoken out strongly on the need for stronger action on climate change.

In a speech last month, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama urged his fellow Pacific leaders to withstand any attempts to water down commitments on climate challenge in the region and globally.

Bainimarama’s warning: ‘Our region remains on the front line of humanity’s greatest challenges’

Bainimarama is attending this year’s Pacific Islands Forum for the first time since 2007, and has already made his presence felt. Earlier this week, he urged Australia to transition as quickly as possible from coal to renewable energy sources, because the Pacific faces

an existential threat that you don’t face and challenges we expect your governments and people to more fully appreciate.

Losing credibility on its ‘step up’

Given the state of Australia’s domestic politics when it comes to making climate change action more of a priority, it is hard to see how Morrison can deliver what the “Pacific family” is asking for.

The recent announcement of A$500 million to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and fund climate resilience programs is sure to be welcomed by Pacific leaders. As is the pledge for A$16m to help tackle marine plastic pollution.

But none of this money is new money – it’s being redirected from the aid budget. And it does not answer the call of Pacific leaders for Australia to do better when it comes to cutting emissions.

An aerial view of Funafuti, the most populous of Tuvalu’s country’s nine atolls.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Why does this matter? Because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the inability – or refusal – to be part of the team when it comes to climate change is undermining Australia’s entire “Pacific step-up”.

If Morrison, and the Australian leadership more broadly, want to reassure Pacific leaders that Australia’s increased attention on the region is not just all about trying to counter Chinese influence, this is where the rubber hits the road.

This is not about whether China is doing better when it comes to climate change mitigation than Australia. The Pacific has greater expectations of Australia, not least because Australian leaders have been at pains to tell the region, and the world, that this is where they live – that Pacific islanders are their “family”.

And for Pacific islanders, if you are family, then there are obligations. This week, as has been the case previously, Pacific leaders will make clear that addressing climate change is their top priority, not geopolitical anxieties over China’s increasing role in the region.




Read more:
Everything but China is on the table during PNG prime minister’s visit


There is little doubt that Australia’s “Pacific step-up” is driven by concerns about the rising influence of China. But Morrison knows better than to voice concerns of that type – at least in public – while in Tuvalu.

Numerous Pacific leaders have made it clear that as far as they are concerned, partnerships with Beijing (for those that have them) provide for greater opportunity and choice.

While they welcome renewed ties with traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand, they maintain a “friends to all and enemies to none” approach to foreign policy. That is unlikely to change any time soon.

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga has warned Australia that its Pacific ‘step up’ could be undermined by a refusal to act on climate change.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Will Tuvalu prove a turning point?

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga may well be hoping that when Morrison sees for himself how climate change is affecting his country, he will be so moved personally, he will shift Australia’s stance politically.

Indeed, on arrival in the capital of Funafuti this week, leaders are being met by children sitting in pools of seawater singing a specially written song “Save Tuvalu, Save the World”.

So what can Morrison realistically be expected to achieve during the summit? He will be able to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to other issues that are important to regional security, such as transnational and organised crime and illegal fishing.

He can also hope the personal relationships he has cultivated with Pacific leaders deliver returns by way of compromise around the wording of the final communique, if only to avoid a diplomatic stoush.

But if there is no real commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, he will leave plenty of frustration behind when he returns to Australia.The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Political Science & International Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.