Peter Dutton’s plan to cut the 2030 climate target would be an own goal for Australia’s Pacific ambitions

The current visit to Australia by China’s Premier Li Qiang may have taken the heat out of recent tensions between the two nations. But Australia remains embroiled with China in a tussle for influence in the Pacific – a fight in which climate ambition is key.

That’s why, at a diplomatic level, we should be concerned about Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s suggestion the Coalition would abandon Australia’s 2030 emissions target should it win the next election. Such a move would be damaging on many levels. Not least, it would undermine Australia’s relations with our Pacific neighbours – nations that regard climate action as vital to their survival, and for whom Australia aims to be the security partner of choice.

Winding back Australia’s 2030 target – a 43% reduction in emissions, based on 2005 levels – would go against the spirit of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The deal requires countries to communicate national targets to cut emissions, and to set stronger targets every five years. No other country has wound back their climate targets.

Even if the Coalition wins office, Dutton is unlikely to have the Senate numbers to scrap the 2030 target. But the potential implications of such a move for our standing in the Pacific are well worth considering.

How is China travelling on the Paris Agreement?

When it comes to climate action, China is a paradox. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal and the largest carbon emitter. But it is also leading the world’s shift to clean energy.

Renewables in China are booming – especially solar. China installed more solar capacity in 2023 than the whole world did in 2022, and is expected to install even more this year. China is also a world leader in electric vehicles. Battery and hybrid cars make up almost 40% of all new cars sold there.

Under its current Paris Agreement target, China plans to reach more than 1,200 gigawatts of installed wind and solar power by 2030. It’s on track to achieve the target next year – five years ahead of schedule.

China also pledged to reach peak emissions before 2030 and there are signs this target has already been met. Now, China has indicated it may strengthen its 2030 target, and at the same time will set a new 2035 target.

Such a move by China would help strengthen global cooperation on climate. All parties to the Paris Agreement are expected to set new, stronger, targets every five years and the next round of targets are due before the United Nations climate meeting, COP30, in Brazil next year.

China’s growing presence in the Pacific

At the same time as making good progress on its climate commitments, China has been expanding its presence in the Pacific. This has changed the dynamic of a region that has long been aligned with the West – notwithstanding concerns such as France’s role in New Caledonia and the impacts of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.

In recent years China has become a major provider of aid for Pacific island countries, especially for much-needed infrastructure projects.

China is also seeking new security arrangements in the Pacific. In April 2022, for example, it signed a security deal with Solomon Islands. The details were not made public. However, a leaked draft contains provisions allowing for Chinese military presence and ship resupply. China has also sought regional security arrangements with Pacific island countries.

Defence officials in Canberra are increasingly concerned about the prospect of China using infrastructure loans as leverage to secure a naval base in the Pacific, or even to station missiles in the region. This would critically undermine Australia’s long-held strategic interest in denying access to our maritime approaches for powers with interests different to our own.

For our Pacific neighbours, climate action is crucial

In light of all this, what would happen if Australia weakened its 2030 emissions targets? We would be isolated on the global stage and branded as a climate laggard. And island nations in our Pacific region would be paying close attention.

Pacific island countries have long been clear that climate change is their greatest security threat. As Fiji’s then-defence minister Inia Seruiratu told a regional security dialogue in 2022:

machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. Waves are crashing at our doorsteps, winds are battering our homes, we are being assaulted by this enemy from many angles.

In Australia, successive governments have expanded coal and gas exports and have been slow to cut emissions. For this reason, Canberra has struggled to convince our Pacific neighbours it is serious about regional security.

Since the current Labor government legislated a 2030 emissions target, there has been something of a rapprochement. However, Pacific leaders want a stronger target still, and remain concerned about the approval of new fossil fuel projects.

The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman, Simon Birmingham, knows climate ambition is important for our regional relations. During a tour of the Pacific in 2022, he said the Coalition should have heeded Pacific calls to set a stronger 2030 target while it was in office.

However Dutton, should he become prime minister, would have a tough time convincing Pacific leaders he is serious about their main security threat. Who could forget that low moment in 2015 when, as immigration minister, he was caught on a hot-mic making jokes about island nations disappearing beneath the waves?

Winding back Australia’s 2030 emissions target would undermine our standing in the Pacific, and damage Australia’s prospects of countering China’s influence.

Ultimately, Pacific island countries want both Australia and China to shift to renewables and move away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. Expectations are high that Australia will do its part. That’s only fair, if Australia wants to cement its place in the Pacific family.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Wesley Morgan, Griffith University

Read more:

Wesley Morgan is a senior researcher with the Climate Council.