SYDNEY/WELLINGTON/FUNAFUTI, TUVALU – Australia stepped up efforts on Wednesday to convince Pacific Islands to abandon calls for tougher climate change goals as Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived on the tiny island of Tuvalu.
The low-lying Pacific islands are on the frontline of global climate change, battling rising sea levels and related crises that have forced some residents to move to higher ground.
Morrison arrived on a two-day visit to attend the Pacific Islands Forum as officials began negotiating policies that many regional leaders said should include limiting temperatures rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels and an immediate end to coal mining.
Australia will not agree to any PIF statement demanding tougher climate goals and Morrison would make this clear to Pacific leaders, Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke said.
“Australia’s position on coal is we won’t have a communique where coal and coal-fired generation, or phasing it out now, is a realistic proposition,” he added.
In 2016, Australia signed the Paris Agreement that commits signatories to policies that limit temperature increases to no more than 2 C, but Morrison is a firm supporter of the country’s coal industry.
In June, Australia approved a new coal mine in its northeastern state of Queensland by India’s Adani Enterprises that is expected to produce 8 million to 10 million tons of thermal coal each year.
Morrison’s strong backing of the mine was a key factor in his government’s surprise re-election in May.
Unwilling to budge, Australia is now looking for allies to prevent agreement among the other 17 Forum members, and Morrison acknowledged tension among the group.
“If you’re going to step up, you’ve got to show up, and Australia’s going to show up,” he told reporters. “We are going to show for the hard conversations, the good conversations and the family conversations.”
Morrison met Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. He is also set to hold talks with Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna and Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga.
Ardern, meanwhile, on Wednesday backed Pacific leaders’ calls for urgent action on climate change, ramping up pressure on Australia to overhaul its stance.
“New Zealand will do its bit and we have an expectation that everyone else will as well … Australia has to answer to the Pacific, that’s a matter for them,” she told reporters.
Australia’s stance on climate change has been a source of tension with its Pacific neighbors, even as it tries to build influence to check the rise of China in the region.
Fiji has led the attack on Australia’s reluctance to give up the fuel at the summit this week. Australia must “do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
An announcement that Canberra would divert 500 million Australian dollars from its foreign aid budget to boost efforts to combat the effects of climate change in the Pacific failed to appease its partners. Sopoaga said giving money should not be used as an excuse not to take necessary steps to cut emissions.
Tuvalu, a nation of just 11,000 people crammed onto low lying atolls, is already experiencing the effects of global warming as rising sea levels cause frequent flooding. That has led to speculation that the entire population might ultimately need to relocate.
Pacific Island leaders were becoming more assertive in calls for other countries to take action on emissions reduction, said Mark Howden, Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. “What they’re saying is: you can’t buy us off by putting money on the table for other activities such as ‘resilience building,’ we want you to address the core issue, not get us to address the symptoms.”
Morrison has said Australia will meet its Paris Agreement target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but has no clear policy agenda for meeting it. In fact, the country’s emissions have been on a rising trajectory in recent years as a number of giant gas projects have started operations.
“To a large extent the government has backed itself into a corner on climate change and it’s not easy to see a way out of that corner,” said Howden. “That’s unfortunate, because in many ways Australia is foregoing major opportunities by being in this position where we haven’t got effective climate change polices, not just on energy but on a whole range of issues.”