The world doesn’t care about swings in marginal seats. Climate action must spearhead a new Australian foreign policy

Late last year, more than 100 former diplomats and officials called for a new Australian foreign policy — with climate action at the center — to help cement Australia’s future in a world rapidly shifting to net-zero emissions.

Failure to act on climate change, they argued, would erode our national interests and international influence. Australia’s allies, partners and competitors would penalise us for not pulling our weight. Regardless of who wins the federal election, Australia’s next government must heed this advice.

There’s a saying that “all politics is local”. But Australian climate politics is dictated as much by the realities of a warming planet, and seismic shifts in global energy markets, as by marginal electorates in Queensland.

Managing the transition to a net-zero emissions economy must be a priority task for the next government. Our strategic and economic success depends on it.

wind farm on green ridge
Managing the net-zero transition must be a priority.

How did we get here?

In recent times, Australian foreign policy has promoted the nation as an energy superpower – a major supplier of coal and gas to Asia. Reducing emissions has been a secondary focus, as Australia’s diplomatic machinery is tasked with promoting fossil fuel exports.

This wasn’t always the case. When a scientific consensus on global warming emerged in the late 1980s, the Hawke Labor government appointed an ambassador for the environment to promote climate action, and supported ambitious national targets to cut emissions.

The mid 1990s however — influence of a powerful fuel fuel lobby and following a national recession — the Keating government was concerned about the potential economic costs of climate action. The subsequent Howard government decision taking serious climate action was not in Australia’s interests

The argument then, as it is now, was that Australia’s economy depends on fossil fuels, and cutting emissions would cost us relatively more than it would other countries.

So ever since, rather than act on climate change, Australia has sought to minimise obligations to cut emissions while expanding coal and gas exports.

Today, Australia has one of the weakest 2030 emissions targets in the developed world. At last year’s global climate talks in Glasgow, Australia refused to join other developed nations in strengthening its ambition.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes Australia as a holdout on climate action. He is right. Australia is among a small, isolated group of countries — including Russia and Saudi Arabia — resisting global efforts to cut emissions.

Not by coincidence Australia is also the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Scorched dystopia or liveable planet? Here’s where the climate policies of our political hopefuls will take us

coal pile and machinery
Australia is the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporters.

The world is changing around us

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year sought support from his Nationals colleagues for a net-zero by 2050 target, he urged them to accept economic reality. The world is transitioning to net-zero. And climate action is now a key pillar of the Western alliance, and so key to Australia for national security reasons.

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