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As Australia big notes its adherence to a global rules-based order following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine its position in undermining the Paris Agreement is becoming untenable.

In the weeks following the Ukraine invasion we’ve seen a stream of indignation from western leaders at Russia’s contempt of a rules-based international order. This includes Australia’s prime minister who asserted that Russia’s actions were a violation of international law and the principles that support a rules-based order.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is right to double down on Australia’s commitment to the international rule of law. In the face of a potentially spiralling global crisis, the principles of the UN Charter and international law are a pathway to diplomacy, dialogue, and ultimately peace. But to do so sends a strong signal to the world that a rules-based international order is a hill that Australia preaches from; the moral high-ground from which we denounce authoritarian regimes.

How comfortable should we feel standing on this hill?

Australia has become a global pariah on climate change

Climate change is a uniquely global crisis, and according to the United Nations threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide. So, it was entirely appropriate that our rules-based international order should deliver the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change that Australia signed in 2015.

In the shadows of Russia’s invasion, the UN has maintained an obsessive focus on climate change, and for good reason. In late February, as bombs rained down loudly over the Ukraine, the International Panel on Climate Change’s second AR6 Special Report hit the ground with its own explosive force.

The IPCC report, a literary bomb, sent shockwaves reverberating globally with its piercing central message that “we’re about to miss a brief window of opportunity to secure a liveable future”.  Clearly framing climate change as a pressing short-term crisis UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres used uncharacteristically emotive language to describe the report as “an atlas of human suffering”.

Downunder, and seemingly unmoved by the report, the Morrison federal government doubled down on its commitment to Australia’s grossly inadequate 2030 emissions reduction target in a clear repudiation of the Paris Agreement and its objectives.

While the government’s revised position surprised few, many were shocked by the unprecedented spray levelled at Australia from Guterres in response to Morrison’s announcement. Guterres labelled Australia a “holdout” on setting a Paris-aligned target, warning with frustration that the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C warming goal was now “on life support”.

Guterres wasn’t being dramatic. The world has less than eight per cent of its carbon budget available to keep us to within 1.5C of warming. At current rates, this budget will be exhausted in less than 10 years. The budget, presented below as a bucket, is now almost totally filled by historical emissions, predominantly from the developed West.

Many people were shocked by the unprecedented spray levelled at Australia from UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres in response to Morrison’s announcement. Guterres labelled Australia a “holdout” on setting a Paris-aligned target, warning with frustration that the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C warming goal was now “on life support”. Image: Climate Central

In defending Australia’s position not to revise its target, the federal Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor maintains that setting a more aggressive target is not good for stability, security and economic growth.

But it turns out that neither is climate change, as the “rain bombs” that dropped recently over NSW and Queensland demonstrated with devastating force, exposing the incoherence of Minister Taylor’s argument.

GHG emissions are now undermining global order

Climate change has long been described by the United Nations as a threat-multiplier, a growing driver of wars, human displacement and suffering as extreme conditions worsen. And when describing “the climate emergency as a danger to peacethe United Nations cites specific examples of how climate change has already deepened conflict and provided fodder for extremist organisations in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

The accelerating impacts are expected to lead to a generalised erosion of global peace over coming years, with the United Nations predicting climate change to cause displacement of more than 140 million people by 2050.    

By understanding our predicament, we can also appreciate how Australia’s refusal to set a Paris-aligned 2030 emissions reduction target has real-world consequences and is increasingly contributing to the erosion of global peace and security.

Our emissions per capita are twice as high as the OECD average, and for every “good for our economy” tonne of greenhouse gas that Australia emits we’re also launching a missile into the atmosphere without having any clear idea of where it will land and who it will impact.

Although as Guterres recently lamented “as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.”

Australia’s incoherent position needs revision

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia is a “strong advocate of peacebuilding … in order to effectively prevent conflict and build sustainable peace”. We’re apparently also “committed to strengthening international law to prevent conflict and restore peace and security”.  But with global peace and security now so clearly contingent on the success of the Paris Agreement, Australia’s foreign policy position is now looking hopelessly compromised.  

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For years now the Australian government’s go-to deflection on the Paris Agreement has been that China’s emission targets are also inadequate, as if to infer that “we can be reckless on climate change because they’re being reckless too”.  Yet in the context of war, and as Australia attempts to exalt itself above Russian and China based on adherence to rules-based international order, these tactics expose us as hypocrites.

With climate change already undermining global peace and security Australia cannot champion itself as an advocate of peacebuilding through a rules-based international order without also demonstrating total adherence to the Paris Agreement and its objectives. Setting a Paris-aligned 2030 target, as unpalatable as it might be to the Coalition, is now unavoidable.


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