COP-26 and the Pacific – Australia’s refusal to embrace a world beyond coal further alienates itself from Pacific/regional neighbours

by Paul Govind

The regional community in the Pacific is an assortment of nations that have vastly different perspectives on regulating climate change. The region underlines the tensions between the Global North and South and the distributional inequity of the causes and effects of climate change. These different perspectives are incongruent and incompatible and have placed nations in opposition through the history of international climate law negotiations. The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in November 2021, further increased divisions among certain nations in the Pacific region.

This post uses a human rights frame to highlight the gulf between the different climate experiences, priorities, and futures of regional neighbours. The contrasting positions are most strongly represented by Australia and the Pacific Island nations, individually and collectively. The Pacific Island nations are among the most vulnerable in the world, while Australia is one of the principal drivers of increasing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Climate change is a crisis that threatens the preservation of human dignity through the Pacific Island nations. Climate impacts result in losses relating to life and livelihoods, territorial integrity, culture, and the existence of nationhood. The impacts translate into a series of human rights, including, inter alia, rights to a healthy environment, to culture, self-determination and development. The situation will worsen into the future under current climate change impact projections. While Australia and New Zealand both represent the Global North in the region, the former is a much stronger contributor  to GHG emissions and resistant to progressing the Paris Agreement.

Since the formative years of the international climate law regime, the Pacific Island nations have advocated that climate change poses an existential risk to their nationhood and continues to unleash catastrophic impacts on their populations. The introduction of Loss and Damage as a pillar of international climate law and policy and its eventual inclusion under the Paris Agreement was an outcome spearheaded by Pacific Island parties. The negotiation stance of the Pacific Island nations has been steadfast for years and has further emphasised the need for urgent action.

Historically Australia has consistently sought to protect its status as a primary producer of coal. This has resulted in a reluctance to endorse ambitious reductions in overall global GHG emissions. The continued use of coal as an energy source will perpetuate and worsen climate impacts that undermine a series of different human rights especially in the Pacific region. The relationship between Australia and Pacific Island nations is heavily influenced by this reality.

Human rights should guide how Parties design and implement their commitments under the Paris Agreement. The preamble acknowledges that Parties should when undertaking action to address climate change, ‘respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.’ Primarily this applies as a normative standard for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Strengthening climate ambition under the Paris Agreement and NDCs should therefore be viewed as a fundamental human rights obligation to future generations.

The impact of climate change on the human rights of Pacific Island nations’ populations stresses the need for greater urgency. The current and future impairment of human rights of Pacific Island nations translates into three key aspects of international climate law and the COP-26 negotiations: adaptation finance, remedies for loss and damage and the link between climate change and accelerated biodiversity loss. However, this has not penetrated Australia’s recalcitrance to ambitious climate policy in terms of mitigation, adaptation or loss and damage.

In the lead up to COP26 the regional focus was squarely on Australia and whether it would amend its second NDC in the face of increasing global pressure for stronger commitments under the Paris Agreement to meet the temperature goal. Increasing Australia’s emission reductions target was the principal focus of Pacific Island leaders. The key word was ambition. The language of the Paris Agreement emphasises that NDCs should display increases in ambition over subsequent NDC commitment periods. A weak or unambitious NDC conveys a lack of urgency to stabilize the global temperature rise and a disregard for human rights. As a Global North nation and a primary producer and exporter of coal, Australia should recognize its enormous responsibility to mitigate climate change in both the regional and international setting. However, Australia’s position has remained extremely conservative.

Australia confirmed its status as a poor climate citizen in the lead up, proceedings and aftermath of COP-26. Australia’s second NDC provided an early indication of its distinct lack of ambition. Australia refused to increase its GHG emission reduction target of between 26 and 28% on 2005 levels. Overall, the NDC is brief, lacks detail and does not provide a clear explanation of how these relatively meagre emission reduction targets will be achieved.

A key indicator of ambition is commitment to net-zero GHG emissions. Australia’s ambivalence to setting a target of net-zero emissions by 2030 (or any timeframe) was in opposition to a rapidly growing trend throughout 2021, especially among Global North parties. Australia eventually set 2050 as the timeframe within which it will achieve net zero GHG emissions. However, the policy does not include any new regulatory action or initiatives and relies heavily upon voluntary action and the availability of low emissions technology. Projections indicate that the bulk of emissions reductions will occur after 2040.

While the Australian Prime Minister acknowledged the concerns of Pacific Island nations – stating that there is “no greater threat to our Pacific family than climate change” – he maintained that the commitment to net-zero by 2050 was sufficient to meet the Kainaki Declaration on climate change, which was delivered at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting. However, the overarching commitment to coal and fossil fuel more broadly was confirmed through both Australia’s participation and non-participation in a host of side agreements. During COP-26, initiatives dedicated to the phase out of coal emerged. Over 40 countries pledged to phase out coal as an energy source by 2030 for the Global North or as soon as possible thereafter and the 2040s for the Global South. A separate though related pledge was signed by 20 governments and financial institutions aimed at phasing out new financial commitments to the overseas fossil fuel sector by the end of 2022. Australia refused to sign up to either pledge, reiterating the focus of technology-based solutions and a commitment to avoiding “wiping out industries.”

Climate finance also underlines the complexity of the relationship between Australia and Pacific Island nations and human rights. Leaders of Pacific Island nations have called for Australia to re-join the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and channel climate funding through the official financial mechanism rather than bilateral arrangements. However, on the first day of COP26, Australia pledged $500 million for climate finance to be dispersed through the Pacific and Southeast Asian regions for the purposes of mitigation and adaptation outside the GCF. Pacific Island nations prefer that climate finance be channelled through the GCF because of transparency, additionality and country ownership of funds.

In the later stages of COP26, Australia directly opposed the Pacific Island nations in resisting a new fund dedicated to Loss and Damage. It is arguably the clearest example of the disregard exhibited by Australia and other Global North nations for human rights impacted by climate change. Australia and the United States reiterated long held opposition to any financial mechanism connected to Loss and Damage that could conceivably be viewed as compensation tied to historical GHG emissions. The Glasgow Pact acknowledges that Loss and Damage will worsen and pose a greater social, economic and environmental threat. Funding is essential to supporting activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change and by extension and affected human rights.

Whilst the Glasgow Pact expresses the need to ‘phase down’ coal, this represents a weakened version of the initial intention to ‘phase out’ coal as included in draft agreements but changed after intervention from India. The Pact contains a provision that requests countries to revisit and strengthen their 2030 targets contained in their NDCs by the end of 2022. Australia opposed the inclusion of this provision effectively affirming that it intends to move forward with its current NDC commitments. Australia might find it difficult to circumvent a new annual high-level ministerial roundtable on pre-2030 ambitions that will commence in 2023. The operation of these new provisions could present opportunities to apply pressure to Parties using a formal, transparent process that could compel change. Parties that are viewed as unambitious will presumably be targeted by the provision. Australia fits this description.

The Paris Agreement acknowledges the importance of protecting biodiversity when taking action to address climate change. Livelihoods in the Pacific are vulnerable to biodiversity loss as well as climate change. Populations are vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to the reliance upon the ocean for resources and livelihoods. Biodiversity loss and shifts in distribution as an impact of climate change have devastating effects. The effects of climate change on biodiversity eventually translate into loss and damage as communities and nations are unable to adapt. Australia did not include any references to the linkage between climate change, biodiversity loss and human rights in its NDC or any official documentation.

The Glasgow Pact recognizes climate change and biodiversity loss as interlinked global crises. While the linkage is not framed in terms of human rights under the Glasgow Pact. The connection between them is forged, somewhat indirectly, through recognizing that the protection, conservation and restoration of ecosystems will deliver benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. The experience of the Pacific Island nations exemplifies the importance of this recognition to human rights. Ecosystem based approaches, such as nature-based solutions, can manage climate vulnerability in ways that maintains the basis of sustainable livelihoods of populations in the Pacific. There is enormous potential for securing human rights.

The positions adopted by Australia underline its overwhelming priority of maximising and protecting its position as a fossil fuel producer and exporter. It has aligned with parties that share economic interests, and in some cases risked increasing isolation, rather than show solidarity with regional neighbours. Australia’s commitment to its current economic trajectory instead of responsibility for slowing the drivers of anthropogenic climate change is an affront to the existential crisis faced by Pacific Island nations and human rights.

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