Frustrated leaders appeal to ‘all OECD countries’ to phase out use as Australia signals support for new plants
— Pacific countries vulnerable to climate change have urged Australia to abandon coal power generation within 12 years, and to prohibit new coal plants or expansion of existing plants.
The call from 15 small Pacific island states came one day after the Australian government called for expressions of interest in new power generation projects, indicating it would be prepared to use taxpayer money to underwrite new coal plants.
Leaders warned Australia’s relations in the Pacific were being eroded by a perceived intransigence in Canberra over coalmining.
As the COP24 UN climate talks in Poland remained stalled over an unwillingness from major emitters to commit to further carbon emissions cuts, frustrated Pacific states, traditional allies of Australia, said the world must abandon coal-powered energy generation.
The Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, the outgoing president of COP23, said: “We call on all OECD countries to quickly phase out their use of coal by 2030 and for all other countries to phase out their use of coal by 2040. There must be no expansion of existing coal mines or the creation of new mines.”
Australia and the US have both this week said publicly they have no plans to begin phasing out coal-generated power.
“The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” Donald Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, Wells Griffith, told a US-government-run panel discussion on fossil fuels at the UN climate talks.
Australia’s ambassador for the environment, Patrick Suckling, told the same panel: “Fossil fuels are projected to be a major source of energy for a significant time to come.”
Asked whether the Pacific declaration on abandoning coal was directed specifically at Australia and the US, Bainimarama was curt but diplomatic: “We request that everybody increases their ambition – that goes for everyone, all countries.”
The prime minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, told the Guardian the phase-out of coal was critical to the survival of Pacific island states.
“We have made that call,” he said. “It is not directed at any one country, but it applies to all. We know that coal power plants are a significant cause of the climate change we see affecting the whole world.”
The Tuvalu prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, cited the Boe Declaration, which Australia signed in Nauru in September, stating that climate change was the single greatest threat to the security and wellbeing of Pacific peoples.
“It is unfortunate that we are hearing that Australia might continue to go on coalmining, opening up new mines, [such as] the Adani project [for the Carmichael mine in Queensland],” Sopoaga said.
“I was in Canberra last week. I spoke to PM Scott Morrison, and the understanding I got from him was that, yes, they are seriously looking into coal efficiency … and also relooking at the proposal for the Adani project. I said, ‘Prime minister, our partnership onwards, bilateral or regional, in this period of the Boe Declaration, will be centrally influenced by coalmining in Australia and I hope you set a pathway to move away from coalmining and focusing on renewable energy’.”
Sopoaga told the Guardian he proposed an annual high-level meeting between Australia and Pacific partners, specifically focused on countering climate change in the region.
Bill Hare, director of climate analytics and former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report lead author, said the Pacific states were right to be concerned about coal.
“Their call for an end to coal by 2030 – including new mines – is highly relevant to Australia – their regional neighbour,” Hare said. “The timing is important, just as the government announces plans to underwrite a new coal-fired power station. I hope Australians will listen, even if their government won’t.”
The Pacific island states also called for the establishment of an international protection regime to protect people displaced by climate change.
While Australia has publicly positioned itself with the United States, representatives from several countries say it has played a constructive role inside the negotiating rooms at the climate talks, where the “rule book” for the implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement is being hammered out.
The environment minister, Melissa Price, met the UN secretary general, António Guterres, after the secretary general flew back to Poland, concerned the talks had reached an impasse.
A spokesman for the minister said, as a courtesy, she would not be discussing details of her meetings at the COP.
Price told the Guardian: “Australia takes a technology-neutral approach to our electricity generation. We are focused on reducing emissions through a range of technologies while maintaining the stability and reliability of our grid and keeping electricity prices down.”
But Australia’s schism with the Pacific islands over climate change is a diplomatic discomfort. As China has rapidly increased its involvement and influence across the Pacific through massive infrastructure projects and loans, Australia has sought to buttress its position as the regional hegemon, with a new commitment of $2bn for infrastructure.
But its perceived political intransigence on climate, particular its commitment to maintaining, and even expanding, coal power generation, is alienating it from Pacific neighbours – historic allies, many of which are low-lying atoll nations experiencing the effects of climate change most acutely.
by Ben Doherty | The Guardian