Kevin Rudd and
Thom Woodroofe

A foreign policy for the climate

Britain’s Conservative government last month declared the fight against climate change its top diplomatic priority after a comprehensive review of its foreign, defence and security policy. In the United States, Joe Biden has mainstreamed climate change across his own national security apparatus. And the European Union has begun taking steps towards putting climate change at the heart of its trading relationships through the implementation of a carbon border adjustment tax.

These examples show tackling climate change is no longer purely the purview of environmental policy. It has crossed the geopolitical Rubicon and countries are now mainstreaming climate action as part of their foreign policy. It is time for Australia to do the same. The fight against climate change must become a new pillar of our foreign policy, on a par with our commitment to the US alliance, the Indo–Pacific region and the multilateral order. And the progressive side of politics has an opportunity to lead the way.

Acting on climate change not only makes economic sense for Australia, it makes diplomatic sense as well. Our refusal to act meaningfully on climate change will increasingly be a thorn in the side of our relations with all of the world’s advanced economies. The entirety of the G7 is now committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Australia will confront an uncomfortable reality as a special guest of the group’s next gathering in June when we find ourselves isolated among the developed countries in the room. For the first time, China also now has a time line to decarbonise its economy, and more than 70 per cent of Australia’s trade is now with jurisdictions committed to making the same transition. Closer to home, our refusal to act on climate change will continue to hamstring any effort to genuinely step up our engagement in the Pacific Islands, which are on the front line of this crisis.

Australia is a creative middle power. Both sides of politics have admittedly demonstrated our country’s ability to achieve landmark diplomatic outcomes. Whether it be brokering peace in Cambodia, the formation of APEC or the G20, securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council, or – most recently – Mathias Cormann’s appointment as the new head of the OECD. When we put our diplomatic minds and might to something, we often succeed. This is no different when it comes to galvanising the world’s efforts to tackle climate change. Despite the common refrain, Australia’s environmental leadership during the past 30 years has often made a difference, including on larger emitters such as China.

Under the Hawke and Keating governments, for example, Australia secured an international ban on mining in Antarctica. We also became one of the first countries to propose a quantifiable emissions reduction target years before this became the norm through the UN Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol that followed.

The Howard government may have cynically advocated Kyoto’s inclusion of emissions from agriculture to allow them to be seen to be doing more while actually doing less, and then refused to ratify the agreement. But ironically this position on agriculture has proved pivotal for ensuring the land sector – which represents 20 per cent of global emissions – has not been excluded from global efforts.

Copenhagen is often remembered for what it didn’t deliver. But Australia, as a “friend of the chair”, was essential for what was able to be salvaged and ensuring that from its ashes the Paris Agreement was able to rise. The concept born there – of countries’ climate targets being set individually from the bottom up, rather than from the top down based on our relative contribution or economic capacity – was an Australian idea. So, too, in part was the concept of a global 2-degree temperature limit being a guardrail for our global efforts, which Australia tabled with the Maldives. The fact that six years later, in Paris, Greg Hunt played a role in then ensuring the calls of island nations to bring this guardrail down to 1.5 degrees were not ignored also deserves credit. And while Australia was then shut out of progressive groupings, including the High Ambition Coalition, there were others we originally helped form, such as the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, only to be forced, embarrassingly, to step away during the Abbott era.

Yet today, with Biden’s new climate envoy, John Kerry, openly identifying Australia – alongside Saudi Arabia and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro – as responsible for the collapse of the most-recent round of UN climate talks in Madrid, it is clear just how much of an international pariah we have become.

Had Labor prevailed at the 2019 election, the world would see us in a very different light today. Instead of refusing to honour the letter and spirit of the Paris Agreement by not increasing the ambition of our existing 2030 target, we would have been the first G20 country to do so ahead of this year’s deadline. We would have re-entered the Green Climate Fund – which until 2018 was led by an Australian, Howard Bamsey – rather than now being the only major Western donor that refuses to take part. And we would have been welcomed as a hero at a critical UN summit in 2019, rather than choosing to instead parade around America’s coal country with Donald Trump.

While the Labor Party may have failed to sell its climate message at the last election, now is a time for courage. This year is not the same as 2019, especially now there is no longer a climate denier in the White House. As the new US president likes to say, when he thinks of climate change, he thinks of jobs. Painting a similar vision of a just transition in Australia, especially for our coal industry, will be key. But it must come with detail, too. The harsh reality is that the global transition to net zero has tolled the death knell for this industry, and unless we are prepared to embrace the serious conversation about how we diversify our domestic economy and export markets, we will be left naked in the wind.

While Labor might be committed to net zero by 2050, the party cannot afford to simply give the government a free pass on the urgency of short-term action. Being a party of opposition means being an alternative government. If the Labor Party was to form government this year, the world’s expectation would be that it brings forward an enhanced 2030 target. Not merely to set its sights on what to do in 2035, which isn’t even up for discussion under the Paris framework for another five years.

More than anything else, this will require Labor to better explain the economic benefits of taking stronger action now, rather than being forced to make deeper cuts later. A report similar to the 2007 Garnaut Climate Change Review – commissioned by the then Labor opposition but focused on the economic benefits of action in the short term – could be the circuit-breaker needed internally within the party on this very question.

Thankfully, when Biden announces his own new 2030 target at an Earth Day Summit this month, it will set a new global benchmark for Australia’s own target. In 2014, Abbott deliberately set Australia’s current target on the basis of what he said the Americans were doing, albeit five years earlier. So by the conservatives’ own rhetoric, if the Americans can do more, so should we. More importantly, we also clearly have the capacity to do more if we are on track to “meet and beat” our current target, as the government says. Not least because in the seven years since that target was developed, we have also begun to bring online the largest renewable energy project in our history in “Snowy 2.0”.

A more ambitious climate policy will require Labor to continue to take the fight up to the government. But just as the government was dragged kicking and screaming away from its insistence on using dodgy accounting tricks to bolster its efforts, it will likely be dragged kicking and screaming to adopting a net zero by 2050 goal. It must similarly be forced to increase its short-term ambition, too. And as we have seen with countries including Japan and Canada in recent months, the possibility of an about-face on this question is not impossible with Biden now in the White House.

The good news is that if given the chance, Australia’s diplomats are primed to once again make a difference in the global fight against climate change. The merger of both AusAID and parts of the Department of Climate Change into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade means they are among the best in the world when it comes to understanding the real world and foreign policy dimensions of climate change. The fact our foreign service also doubles as our trade agency will also be crucial for the new era we have entered.

It is time for Australia to adopt a foreign policy for the climate. We have made a difference before and can do so again. All that is missing is the right political leadership.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 3, 2021 as "A foreign policy for the climate".

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Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister of Australia.

Thom Woodroofe previously worked as a diplomatic adviser in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement.

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