Australia should rejoin UN climate fund to prove commitment to Pacific neighbours, thinktank argues


Australia must move on from a “crisis mentality” as it seeks to reset its relationship with Pacific island countries, including by rejoining a key UN climate fund, a thinktank says.

Australia must do more than simply position itself as a first responder to natural disasters if it is to become “an effective climate ally with the Pacific”, according to a series of policy papers to be published on Tuesday.

Rejoining the Green Climate Fund – a UN-backed scheme to assist developing countries that Scott Morrison rejected – is among the proposals to be outlined by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D).

The AP4D programme leader, Melissa Conley Tyler, said climate policy had undermined the idea of Australia and the Pacific as a “family” because Pacific leaders had been asking: “If you are family you would take this issue more seriously?”

The thinktank argues the effects and root causes of the climate crisis should be Australia’s central foreign policy concern in the Pacific.

The policy paper – called “What does it look like for Australia to be an effective climate ally with the Pacific” – states the reluctance of successive governments to set ambitious emissions reduction targets “has hindered Australia’s diplomatic efforts in the Pacific”.

It says building trust with Pacific island countries supports Australia’s broader geopolitical interests, while warning measures such as Australia’s “Pacific step-up” could be seen as lacking credibility if perceived to be only in response to China’s increased presence.

The paper notes China is aware of the importance of Pacific relationships to Australia’s foreign policy “and it is making considerable effort to enhance its own relationships in the region, including opening a Climate and the Pacific Friendship Centre”.

The paper urges Australia to join the Pacific “in a regional diplomatic bloc that can drive global ambition on climate change mitigation”, backed by a commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels domestically and acknowledging coal has a limited export lifespan.

“Australia needs to revisit its own contribution to climate change as a major emitter and fossil fuel exporter through an ambitious domestic climate policy and work with Pacific island countries through processes of multilateral diplomacy to drive global ambition to reduce emissions,” the paper says.

It suggests that Australia should have an annual discussion within the Pacific, distinct from the Pacific Islands Forum, with a specific climate focus to be called a “1.5 Track Dialogue for 1.5 Degrees”.

The paper urges Australia to rejoin the Green Climate Fund, but also to push for the scheme to improve access for Pacific island countries.

Australia stepped back from the fund in 2018 and has opted to provide climate aid largely through bilateral arrangements, including committing to provide hundreds of millions in funding to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and climate and disaster resilience.

The policy paper suggests that Australia should also engage with Pacific island countries in the emerging debate calling for reparation for loss and damage caused by carbon emitters.

This proposal comes a day after the new Albanese government was urged to prove its commitment to climate action by backing a campaign led by Vanuatu to see international law changed to recognise climate harm.

The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has visited Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Solomon Islands in quick succession since being sworn in last month. She has used these visits to emphasise the new government’s 43% emissions reduction target for 2030 and that Australia is listening to the region.

Conley Tyler said any change of government provided an opportunity to reset relationships and “clear barnacles”, but it was important for Australia to be seen as “a generational partner”.

“It’s all about the long-term. That’s important. Our discussions at the moment have a little bit of a crisis mentality about them. We don’t want to be thinking as short term, transactional,” she said.

Conley Tyler added that the options papers to be launched on Tuesday proposed a vision for “using all elements of statecraft to ensure Australia can build a better shared future with the Pacific region”.

The AP4D papers cover other issues including economic recovery, security and digital resilience. They include a proposal to shift away from funding big infrastructure projects towards maintenance, small-scale capital works and climate adaptation.

Australian policymakers are urged to “think big to achieve a significant reset in security cooperation”, including the idea of a new multi-agency organisation that partners with Pacific countries to respond to security challenges.

The thinktank said the papers were drawn up after gathering input from dozens of experts from the development, diplomacy and defence communities and consultations with Pacific stakeholders.