Australia has been criticised for siding with China and Russia to oppose a popular plan from a group of Pacific Island nations to tackle carbon emissions from the shipping industry.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, is meeting in London with representatives from 175 nations expected to forge an agreement to dramatically cut shipping industry emissions. Globally, the industry moves 11 billion tonnes of cargo each year and creates around 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses, around the same amount as Germany or Japan.
An ambitious proposal conceived and championed by Pacific Island nations including Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands — which has one of the world’s largest shipping fleets registered to its flag — would introduce a US$100 per tonne levy on maritime emissions in order to make cleaner fuels cost-competitive with the dirtier heavy fuel oil that is the industry standard.
But The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to three sources present in closed preliminary discussions who said opposition to the proposal has hardened among a group of about 20 nations including China, Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia. This masthead has seen documentation that confirms their accounts.
The proposal had not only won widespread support across the Pacific, but the crucial backing of the EU and many nations gathered at Paris climate finance talks held last month. Both the International Chamber of Shipping and World Shipping Council support the introduction of a levy.
Though Australia has voiced support for aligning the industry with Paris Agreement climate targets of holding warming to 1.5 degrees, the sources said it remained opposed to the shipping levy as proposed by the Pacific nations. Alternative proposals could also be debated and it is not clear which, if any, Australia might support.
One observer at the talks, commenting on the condition of anonymity, said he believed Australia and Brazil would oppose the levy because they wanted to protect high volume seaborne trade with China, which they fear could become more expensive under the proposal.
Australia’s position has disappointed some observers who hoped the Albanese government would be more supportive due to its declared determination to act on climate and rebuild ties with Pacific nations which rate the threat of rising sea levels among their greatest challenges.
“I had personally expected [the new government] to change its work in the IMO in a direction that was much more positive to supporting the Pacific Islands positions,” said Michael Prehn, a Danish shipping expert who serves as the representative to the International Maritime Organisation for Solomon Islands.
“I am surprised by the Australian government not changing its actions in IMO to be more in the direction of supporting the Pacific Islands proposals.”
Prehn said some nations appeared to be concerned about the impact the levy might have on trade, but were not sufficiently concerned about the impact on trade of not acting on climate.
The proposal includes setting hard and ambitious decarbonisation targets of 37 per cent by 2030 and 96 per cent by 2040, which proponents say are necessary to put the industry in line with the Paris Agreement targets.
The levy would generate an estimated US$60 billion to US$80 billion each year which would be used to fund the deployment of clean shipping technology and help developing nations decarbonise.
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Catherine King said that given the shipping industry’s emissions were equivalent to that of the sixth largest emitting country, the government was keen to encourage it to contribute to global efforts to reach the Paris targets.
“With our own legislated national target of net zero by 2050, Australia will be an active player in advocating for an ambitious strategy and the phasing out of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions from international shipping by 2050. We will also be looking for the establishment of interim ambitions to establish a clear transition pathway for industry and ensure the global fleet keeps on track,” the spokesperson said.
“As an island nation where 99 per cent of our goods are imported and exported by sea, Australia needs to carefully consider the details of any economic measures.”
The spokesperson pointed out that the negotiations were continuing and the IMO would this week consider revising the currently agreed plan to reduce emissions by at least 50 percent on 2008 levels by 2050.
Another observer who was present at the meetings but had not been authorised to speak with media said Australia had disappointed advocates for increased action both in its stance on the levy itself and on the adoption of emission reductions targets.
“Under [former prime minister Scott] Morrison, Australia was incredibly badly received. Clearly, with the new administration, there was a hope that they could be more progressive, and Australia has been disappointing at every single meeting.”
Anthony Albanese’s government has prioritised the improvement of relations with Pacific countries since being elected, with both the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong frequently meeting the region’s leaders.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare recently asked for a review of its defence deal with Australia, according to AFP reports, months after it signed a security deal with China. That deal was struck after bilateral relations deteriorated during the Morrison government.
The economies of some of the island nations calling for the shipping levy are highly dependent on shipping.
In a statement the Pacific Elders, a group of former political leaders of Pacific Island nations that advocates for climate action, said the levy was necessary to close the price gap between dirty and clean fuels.
“Shipping is our lifeline in the Pacific. Without it, we would not have access to the crucial energy and supplies needed to power our economies and provide for our people.
“However, shipping is also a significant source of historical and contemporary emissions that have also contributed to climate harms in the past and will continue to harm the climate system.”
The IMO talks begin on Monday and are expected to conclude on Friday.
SOURCE: SMH/THE AGE/PACNEWS