26 years ago, Howard chose fossil fuels over the Pacific. What will Albanese choose?

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After his trips to Washington and Beijing, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is now in the Cook Islands for the Pacific Island Forum. There he will aim to strengthen relations with Pacific nations and reaffirm Australia’s place as a security partner of choice.

But to do that, he will have to repair a historic rift since former Prime Minister John Howard met with Pacific leaders on the same island, Aitutaki, a quarter of a century ago to defend his choice to divest Australia’s fossil fuel industry. to expand.

Pacific leaders view climate change as by far their biggest security threat. Sea level rise, stronger cyclones, marine heat waves and ocean acidification pose existential threats. They will ask Albanians to support a regional declaration for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

What will happen on the atoll? We could see history repeating itself: Pacific outrage, Australian intransigence. Or we could see a better outcome, if the Albanians signal that Australia is finally ready to transition away from fossil fuels.

Read more: After decades of putting the brakes on global action, does Australia deserve to host UN climate talks with Pacific nations?

A junction in Aitutaki

When a scientific consensus on global warming emerged in the mid-1980s, Australia’s initial response was aligned with that of the Pacific countries. In a joint statement from 1990, they even called on industrialized countries to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Pacific island nations suggested that Australia’s national target – to cut emissions by 20% by 2005 – should be binding on all developed countries.

That brief window quickly closed. Under persistent lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, the Australian government came to view global climate action as a threat to economic prosperity.

At the first Conference of Parties (COP1) to the UN Climate Convention in 1995, Australian negotiators argued for a weaker emissions target because our economy was more dependent on fossil fuels than comparable countries. This positioning in the UN climate talks was further entrenched when Howard came to power in 1996.

One issue: two prime ministers on the same island, 26 years apart.

Disagreements with island states came to a head at the 1997 South Pacific Forum, when island leaders tried to convince Howard to back their calls for globally binding emissions cuts ahead of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol later that year. The discussions in Aitutaki turned bitter and ended in overtime in the airport lounge.

Howard was not moved. In the Kyoto negotiations, Australia sought and won its own clause, which would allow the country to actually increase emissions and expand its fossil fuel industries.

Afterwards, Cook Islands Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry described Australia’s approach as a “selfish” attempt to protect coal and energy-intensive industries. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Bikenibau Paeniu told regional media that “Australia dominates us so much in this region that we would have liked to have some respect for once.”

For his part, Howard has dismissed concerns that climate change and sea level rise could threaten island nations as “exaggerated” and “apocalyptic.”

Australia’s decision has since caused unrest.

Could we see Australia mend the divide?

For his part, Albanese has said he wants to repair the climate divide. At last year’s forum, he joined island leaders in declaring a climate emergency in the Pacific. Australia wants to host the UN climate talks in 2026 in partnership with Pacific island states, a move that island leaders have formally welcomed. But it is also clear that Pacific countries want him to support a regional declaration to phase out fossil fuels.

Pacific governments have not been sitting idle. This year, a group of Pacific governments called for a fossil fuel-free Pacific. Island countries want to appoint a new Pacific Energy Commissioner to oversee the region’s energy transition.

Pacific nations are also campaigning for a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, which would oversee the end of fossil fuel expansion. These goals will be presented to leaders again this week – including the Albanians.

Pacific Island ministers meet at the harbor villa.  group of people standing in front of a photo.
When Pacific ministers met in Vanuatu’s Port Vila in March, they launched calls for a fossil-fuel-free Pacific.
Voyager Pacific StudiosCC BY-ND

There are signs that the Albanians will arrive with new climate financing, including $50 million for the global Green Climate Fund and funds for a regional Pacific Resilience Facility. Support to address rising climate adaptation costs will be welcome, but will not be enough for Pacific leaders. What they want to see is that their regionally powerful neighbor actually stops adding fuel to the fire.

Vanuatu’s climate minister Ralph Regenvanu says Pacific countries need real allies to make substantive commitments to move away from coal, oil and gas.

The global energy transition cannot be stopped

It’s not just countries in the Pacific that are calling on Australia to commit to a fossil fuel phase-out. German international climate envoy Jennifer Morgan is heading to this week’s forum to call on Australia to support the European Union’s push for a phase-out at next month’s UN COP28 climate talks in Dubai.

Ambassador Morgan said this week:

Not only must we phase out fossil fuels, we must also stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure because they will become stranded assets. We must work towards a just transition for workers and build new industries.

She has a point. The International Energy Agency last week published its annual World Energy Outlook, which showed that global deployment of renewable energy technologies is rapidly overtaking fossil fuel projects, and that demand for fossil fuels is likely to peak before 2030.

Australia’s economic interests are changing as the global economy moves towards net zero emissions. Gas and coal aren’t the only valuable things among Australia’s dirt; we have a wealth of crucial minerals that are essential for the clean energy transition.

Governments have no choice but to plan for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels and facilitate the transition to clean energy industries, such as battery production and green hydrogen and ammonia.

The sooner Australia continues its transition away from fossil fuels, the sooner we will be embraced by the rest of the Pacific family.

Read more: Both US and Australia are adamant on Pacific ‘business’. But there is only one that really turns the switch

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