March 14, 2024

More climate, more gender, more targets, same budget - how will this play out?

Under Australia’s 2023 international development policy, all new investments over $3m must include gender equality as an objective. And from next financial year, half of all new bilateral and regional investments over $3m must address climate change, rising to 80 percent over the next few years.

The Government says that these targets will put gender equality and climate action at the heart of the development program. But with the ODA budget only increasing modestly over the next ten years, some question whether meeting these targets will mean cuts to other priorities and sectors.

This week, we asked three experts how this balancing act will play out in practice. Here’s what they said.

Dr. Cameron Hill
Senior Research Officer, Development Policy Centre

There are two ways the allocation of a flatlining budget (in real terms) towards a proliferation of sectoral priorities could play out. The first is that choices are made within a “closed loop”: largely ad hoc and discretionary, geared toward short-term transactional goals and/or lacking transparency about what is counted as “climate” or “gender” aid. We have seen the latter in countries like PNG where one donor has counted the value of an entire airport redevelopment loan as “climate aid”. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has recently been rapped over the knuckles for “moving the goalposts” on climate finance by the UK’s independent aid commission. And Australia has not been immune to overcounting its climate aid.

The second is that these difficult choices are guided by clear criteria that can inform evidence-based decisions and help officials and Ministers navigate the trade-offs. Minister Conroy has set out what these criteria could look like. In this scenario, bodies like DFAT’s Development Program Committee would have a stronger role in overseeing development strategies and major investments, ensuring that they are evidence-based and will have demonstrable climate and gender impacts. It would make greater use of independent expertise and research, performance trends and tools like impact evaluation and, where appropriate, randomised controlled trials. Improved transparency – through the publication of all major investment designs, reviews and evaluations - could demonstrate to the parliament, the Australian public and development partners that aid investment decisions are robust.

It seems like we are still a long way from the second pathway. But the development policy commits the government to a program that is “transparent, effective and accountable” and Conroy has said Australia won’t be doing “transactional” aid. So, the opportunity is there. And, unlike the many other complexities involved in development, these are factors that we can largely control.

One of Australia’s leading researchers on Australian aid and development, Cam is one of those unicorns who can turn his hand to analysis, practice, and management with equal skill (and sharp wit). In a previous life he worked at DFAT, for over 10 years at AusAID, ACFID and the Parliamentary Library. At ANU’s Development Policy Centre, his research focuses on the effectiveness and transparency of Australia’s international engagement. At the Lab, we love his lightning-fast research skills and his generous conversations over coffee whenever he stops by.

Matt Spannagle
Director, Climate and Nature, Palladium

‘More of the same’ will not address climate change, no matter how big the pie is. We have this decade to make a dent in the climate trajectory. Since 2015, global emissions rates have plateaued. That’s good, but not enough. We need 10+% annual reductions to beat 2oC. Climate hazards are manifesting sooner and more intensely than projected.

It’s clear that the scale of action needed will not come through incremental improvements. Winning slowly on climate change is losing. Transformational changes are needed. What does that look like?

When considering how it might help partners in the region meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement, Australia could take a leaf out of the European Union’s book. EU fossil fuel emissions in 2023 were the lowest in 60 years. The transformational change here is that on-grid renewable energy is cheaper, faster to build and easier to finance than fossil alternatives. This is terrific, demonstrating that it can be done while maintaining a prosperous society. Closer integration of member states and reduced reliance on foreign suppliers blunts Russian aggression, and more money stays in the Union.

If Australia carefully spends the same budget in the same way, then the money available to address climate change is woefully inadequate. The downward spiral will not be arrested, and voters will be further disillusioned by foreign aid, making political commitments harder still.

But if it targets transformational changes, supporting livelihoods that are low emissions and climate resilient, then more money may not be needed. This involves working differently, and yes, taking risks. But I’m heartened by Minister Wong’s commitment in last year’s new development policy, when she said that “achieving our goals will require meaningful changes to how we think, plan, and engage”. Our ambition to address the climate crisis is a good place to start.

Matt has spent his career tackling the dual challenges of climate change and development. In a past life, he was an advisor on climate change at AusAID and the UNDP. Currently, he delivers climate change programs and services for Palladium and its partners​. He’s also advised a range of private sector firms, governments and multilateral organisations around the world on their climate policies and programs. The Lab admires Matt’s commitment to innovation and effectiveness in addressing pressing global issues.

Dr. Danielle Ireland-Piper
Academic Director, National Security College

Tackling the consequences of climate on gender inequality in our region is a whole of nation responsibility. This can’t be done by the aid and development sector alone, not least because the climate emergency is a threat-multiplying national security risk. It diverts defence resources and disrupts human security. While securitisation of any issue should be done with care and according to the rule of law, the climate emergency is existential.

Meaningful action from Australia on the climate crisis requires a co-ordinated response. This could look like planned “Migration with Dignity” programs and initiatives supporting labour mobility (consider shortages in the construction sector in Australia, for example). As the impacts of the climate crisis worsen, we will need standing disaster response services with close coordination between local, state, and federal governments in Australia, as well as space capacity programs in the region. While this sounds ambitious, it is essential given the essentiality of telecommunications for Blue Pacific archipelagos and the usefulness of remote-sensing technologies for monitoring vulnerability to weather events.

Effective responses from Australia also require a gender lens because climate is not gender neutral. Women displaced by climate events are at greater risk of sexual violence and modern slavery and can be disproportionately affected by rising temperatures. In short, gender, climate, and security are inextricably linked. The “threat multiplying” consequences of climate on vulnerable communities in our region pose risks to the stability of the nation that go well beyond the aid and development budget.

Danielle brings a blend of academic rigour and real-world pragmatism to Australia’s national security discourse. With a PhD from the University of Queensland and an LLM from the University of Cambridge, Danielle is currently Associate Professor and Academic Director at the ANU’s National Security College. At the Lab, we love how she draws connections between seemingly disparate issues such as space security, human rights, and transnational crime and their relevance to Australia’s national interests.

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