October 19, 2023

How can Australia translate climate ambition from policy to reality?

Climate action is featured prominently in the new International Development Policy. Named as a priority, the policy has new targets – namely the need for climate change objectives in investments valued over $3 million. Many have applauded this prioritisation – it's long been advocated for in the sector, and abundantly clear it is a priority for Australia’s regional partners.

With that said, there have also been questions about how this level of ambition and rhetoric will roll out practically.

Whether it be the challenge of working domestically and internationally in tandem, the sheer scale of the challenge, and delivering on an array of other priorities in the policy, we’re left wondering what it will take to translate this ambition into reality. So, this week, we put this to the experts.

Here’s what they said.

Richard Mathews
President, Diplomats for Climate Action Now

When the planet is facing temperature rises it has not seen for two million years, humanity needs to take radical action. Climate change is causing increasingly severe weather events which most seriously affect the poor. This is a human rights issue, and many world leaders are very worried. Emergency relief programs will not mitigate the misery that climate change will cause for millions of people in developing countries.

Since 2021 our group has been advocating for the aid program to refocus on supporting development partners to meet their Paris and COP commitments and develop the skills needed to build green economies. So, we welcome Australia’s new international development policy which recognises climate change as “the greatest shared threat to all countries” and includes consideration of climate risk in all programs. But given the climate risk to our region the policy falls short, not least because it provides no new real funding.

As in Australia, our development partners cannot achieve the necessary transition to renewables without a strategic green vision, significant investment in appropriate infrastructure and substantial cost and effort. Our development programs, particularly if expanded, can assist meet some of these costs. Australia should provide education and training in climate/energy transition to our development partners on a massive scale. Our major programs should be focused on climate adaptation/mitigation and the energy transition. We must support regional communities most at risk of extreme weather events. We should strengthen climate finance initiatives that lower the cost of capital for renewables investments. (Recent announcements on collaboration with Indonesia are a small step in that direction.)

If we want to co-host COP31 in 2026, we should become a leader in accelerating regional capacity to make the energy transition. Climate change is the defining existential risk of our time, but there is no time to waste.

Richard has extensive experience working within DFAT, including on senior postings in both Taiwan and extensively in Indonesia, where he was the first Head of Mission at Australia's newest Consulate-General in Makassar. Now, he is the founder of Diplomats for Climate Action, a group that advocates for the prioritisation of climate change in Australia’s foreign policy. He is also involved with the Australian Conservation Foundation. The Lab is inspired by Richard’s wealth of knowledge, depth of experience and his passion and commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

Megan Argyriou
Board Chair, 1 Million Women

Despite our region’s growing emissions and vulnerability to climate impacts, Australian international development policy has largely ignored climate change over the past decade. So, it is refreshing to see both climate risks and opportunities feature increasingly in the Australian Government’s international development discourse, and reflected in Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Strategy to 2040, prepared by Special Envoy for Southeast Asia, Nicholas Moore AO.

But the strategy, perhaps unwittingly, also highlights the pernicious ideological myth that continues to drive Government policy - that Australia can be part of the climate solution while continuing to grow our export of fossil fuels.

Southeast Asia is uniquely well positioned to capture the economic benefits from green industrialisation. The potential for greater collaboration, investment and trade between Australia and our regional neighbours in critical minerals, renewable energy and clean technologies could generate huge economic benefits for all, as the strategy rightly highlights.

However, Moore also suggests a sizeable potential for exports of Australian fossil fuels to the region. For example, it assumes that a whopping 70% of all energy use in the region will come from ‘conventional’ (i.e. fossil-based) energy sources in 2050. This contrasts the mid-century net zero target almost all countries in Southeast Asia have set, which would see fossil fuel use decline dramatically by mid-century.

By cherry picking data from different scenarios in the same IEA report, the strategy both makes the case for the huge potential for ‘green’ trade, while also painting a rosy future for Australia’s fossil fuel exports to the region - at stark odds with the science.

Importantly, it also ignores Australia’s moral imperative - as an advanced nation with abundant clean economy opportunities - to play a constructive leadership role to steer our region towards a climate safe future.

Until Australia accepts that we must rapidly transition our export economy from fossil-based to ‘green’, our efforts to translate climate ambition into reality will continue to be thwarted.

Meg is the Board Chair of 1 Million Women, a global movement of women striving towards climate action. Prior to this, Meg was a founding member of ClimateWorks Centre Australia, and has worked in government and the International Energy Agency. She has over a decade of experience in designing and delivering climate initiatives across the Asia Pacific region. At the Lab, we admire Meg's tireless work towards climate action and sustainable development, and her astute ability to connect domestic and international issues.

Nat Burke
Head of Regenerative Climate, WWF-Australia

First thing’s first, Australia needs to significantly increase its climate finance commitments to meet our fair share. These funds should be “new and additional,” not diverted from other priority sectors of the aid program.

However, within those priority sectors, we also need to address the most fundamental ways in which climate change hampers sustainable development. The new international development policy’s climate target and the introduction of a nature-positive indicator in the new performance and delivery framework are steps in the right direction.

Most of the world’s poorest people depend directly on natural resources. From coastal fisheries to wild pollinators, the health of our economies and our communities is inseparable from the health of our planet. Deforestation and the spread of monoculture plantations are even linked to the rapid rise of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. Climate change is the great threat multiplier, accelerating and exacerbating the destruction of ecosystems that sustain life and livelihoods.

At the same time, nature-based solutions can be a cost-effective way to support climate mitigation and are helping communities adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Healthy mangroves, for example, sequester carbon, protect from storm surges, and are spawning grounds for economically and nutritionally important fish. When designed with the sustainable and inclusive development aspirations, traditional knowledge, and cultural authority of communities at the centre, the benefits of nature-based solutions can be even more wide-reaching. Recent analysis found that lands managed by Indigenous People and Local Communities can sequester more than 2 times the amount of carbon than other lands.

Nature-based solutions can’t solve the climate crisis alone. In fact, they’re only effective in the long-term if implemented alongside ambitious, science-based emissions reductions, because the ecosystems that provide nature-based solutions are, themselves, threatened by climate change.

There are no silver bullets for a problem as wicked as climate change. But mainstreaming high-integrity nature-based solutions across priority sectors could be the best way for the aid program to translate the new international development policy’s climate ambition into action while continuing to deliver the inclusive development, health, food security, and disaster resilience outcomes upon which it has long focused.

Nat leads conservation teams across Australia and the Asia and the Pacific to achieve conservation and development outcomes while supporting sustainable and inclusive development. Before joining WWF in 2016, Nat worked in social development and human rights roles for AusAID and World Vision. He has almost 20 years of experience in program management, policy advocacy, and applied research. A long-time friend of the Lab, we deeply value Nat’s combination of sharp technical knowledge and consistent generosity as he works with colleagues across the sector.

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