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Britain, Australia and climate cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

Anthony Albanese, the Australian Prime Minister, made his first international call on the job to Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, as he flew to the Quad Leaders Meeting in Tokyo in May. During the call[↗] ‘both leaders agreed that there was strong alignment between their governments’ joint agendas, spanning across global security, climate change and trade’. Indeed, climate change is now a central pillar of the United Kingdom (UK)-Australia relationship.

Albanese’s climate-focused foreign policy has seen the Australian Government re-engage with its partners on climate change after years of falling behind. The government has announced that it wants to bid to host[↗] a United Nations climate Conference of the Parties with Pacific partners, a $200 million (£114 million) climate and infrastructure partnership with Indonesia[↗], and that it is centering climate change as the ‘hallmark[↗]’ of the United States (US)-Australia alliance. Whilst it is still too early to assess Labor’s climate commitments, early signs indicate a strong focus on climate diplomacy. 

The UK is already an international climate leader and exercises climate diplomacy. In the lead-up to hosting COP26 in Glasgow, the Johnson government launched its Climate Diplomacy objectives[↗] for 2020-2021, which saw British climate diplomats posted worldwide to ensure that states are increasing their climate ‘ambition through increased national commitments and net-zero targets’. The same year, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy[↗] (Integrated Review) indicated that ‘tackling climate change’ was the government’s ‘number one international priority’.

The Integrated Review also outlined how the UK would begin a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, as it recognised both intensifying geopolitical competition and the increased risk posed by climate change in the region. Working with Australia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands will be key to the UK’s Indo-Pacific climate action, something which will be essential for successful British engagement in the region more broadly. 

The Indo-Pacific region will be amongst the hardest hit by climate change. It is estimated[↗] that in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, 65.9 million people have been displaced due to natural disasters between 2008 and 2020. Indeed, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands are amongst the most vulnerable regions to climate change in the world. In combating this, one of the strengths of the UK’s Integrated Review is its adoption of a more integrated foreign policy, combining defence, development and diplomacy. An integrated approach is needed to combat climate change’s multifaceted nature. 

The UK’s integrated approach offers a strong example of better climate policymaking for the Australian government. Currently, there are attempts to bring a more integrated approach to Australia through the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue[↗]. Albanese should look to the UK’s Integrated Review to combine the tools of Australia’s defence, development and diplomacy networks to create a more cohesive Australian foreign policy that is able to address the varied effects of climate change.

British and Australian cooperation with the Indo-Pacific on climate change is central to the region’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. In doing so, however, it is vital that both states listen to the region and do not adopt a transactional approach with only one eye on the climate. As Penny Wong, the Australian Foreign Minister, has said[↗], ‘we will listen and we care’. The key word is listen, and Britain should adopt similar language when engaging with smaller Indo-Pacific nations vulnerable to climate change.

The UK becoming a ‘dialogue partner[↗]’ of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides a good platform for listening to Indo-Pacific voices. Similar to how the Quad grouping emphasises ASEAN centrality in its Indo-Pacific strategy, the UK must work with regional institutions to help anchor its strategy firmly in the region. Australia and the UK can cooperate in supporting ASEAN states in transitioning away from fossil fuels so that they can meet their climate targets[↗], and can use their existing resources, expertise and naval interoperability to help mitigate against the impact[↗] climate change is already having in Southeast Asia. 

In the Pacific, the UK can work with the Pacific Islands Forum to enhance regional security and climate adaptation and mitigation. Australia, a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, has adopted the Boe Declaration[↗] on Regional Security, which acknowledges climate change as ‘the single greatest threat’ to the Pacific. The Integrated Review already sees climate change as a security threat, and the UK should translate this like-mindedness into more official recognition of the Boe Declaration, something that could help strengthen its relations with the Pacific Islands. 

For Australia, whilst it has signed onto Boe, it is yet to fully understand climate change as a security threat. The new Albanese government should make efforts to better understand the interconnectedness between climate change and national – and indeed international – security, as per Boe and the Integrated Review.

Climate change doesn’t stop at borders; each sub-region can share different climate experiences. Southeast Asia’s focus on international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will help to bolster maritime security and manage changing maritime boundaries. The Pacific Island’s oceanic resource management and climate diplomacy expertise will help with regional climate management and international diplomacy. Both regions can work together to manage changes to the blue economy, with increased floods and ocean acidification threatening the fishing industry, which supports 200 million people[↗] in the region. Australia and the UK can uplift regional voices through their own diplomatic networks, helping bring Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands together whilst furthering each region’s specific climate goals. 

In the same way the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ emphasises an integrated approach to policy making, a more integrated approach to climate change is needed to ensure a more holistic and regional response to this transnational threat. Australia and the UK can work together in, and learn from, the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, they must listen to regional voices and encourage cooperation amongst the Indo-Pacific’s most vulnerable sub-regions, importantly Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Cooperation amongst Australia and the UK in tackling climate change in the Indo-Pacific offers opportunities for learning, but also, importantly, opportunities for real change and the fostering of genuine regional partnerships.

Kate Clayton is Research Officer at La Trobe Asia.

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