Australia urged not to rely on ‘drug dealer’s defence’ for gas exports and help wean Japan off fossil fuels

05 12 2023 | 19:58Adam Morton / THE GUARDIAN

The Albanese government should do more to leverage its relationship with Japan – arguably the world’s most important energy partnership – to help its trading partner move away from gas and towards a rapid and ambitious decarbonisation, former diplomats say.

Diplomats for Climate, an organisation supported by more than 100 former Australian officials, says “the future of gas lies in the ground” but that a ban on new fossil fuel developments – the focus of a growing community campaign that argues that is what the scientific evidence demands – would not cut global emissions unless international demand was reduced.

Australia is one of the world’s three biggest fossil fuel exporters but the ex-diplomats say its coal and gas exports meet only about 4.8% and 2.8% of global demand respectively. They say Australia’s supply would likely be replaced by other exporting countries if it simply stopped.

In a submission to the government on the future of the gas industry before the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, Diplomats for Climate said it placed an onus on Australia to leverage “its strong reputation and history as a reliable energy supplier” to encourage its trading partners to quickly cut reliance on fossil fuels. That meant not merely relying on the “drug dealer’s defence” – arguing that if Australia did not sell a harmful product, someone else would.

“Diplomats for Climate wants to see rapid and dramatic decreases in fossil fuel production, but this will only reduce global emissions if driven by rapid and dramatic reductions in demand,” the group’s executive director, Janaline Oh, said.

“If the government wants to use the drug dealer’s defence it needs to be the dealer who takes their clients to rehab and supports them off their habit.”

The argument is particularly focused on Australia’s relationship with Japan, which gets about 40% of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Australia and has been vocal about its concerns that Albanese government policies could affect new gas developments.

Examples include the Kishida government lobbying the Albanese government for a proposed LNG development to be given special treatment under Australia’s safeguard mechanism climate policy, and the head of the Japanese energy giant Inpex telling MPs in Canberra he feared their policies could result in “a direct threat to the rules-based international order essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region, if not the world”.

The Australian government has not given Japan special treatment under the safeguard mechanism but has attempted to assuage some of the country’s concerns. The resources minister, Madeleine King, said Australia was a “reliable supplier of energy to Japan and always will be”, and has joined the Western Australian and Northern Territory governments in supporting the opening of new gas fields for export.

The climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, has said the government had told its international partners that it would “continue to be a reliable energy supplier, but we want to work with you on your decarbonisation, because we have advantages that you don’t have, we can provide green hydrogen, we can provide renewable energy”.

Activists and campaigners have accused Japan of backtracking on its climate commitments. The Climate Action Tracker found the Kishida administration had missed an opportunity to place renewable energy at the core of its decarbonisation efforts and needed to do more to get off fossil fuels if it hoped to meet its 2030 target – a 46% cut in emissions compared with 2013 levels.

Oh, a former Australian climate diplomat, said the International Energy Agency had shown Japan’s net zero plan was heavily reliant on the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that has failed to develop commercially despite billions of dollars in support.

She said Australia’s role should be to show it could underwrite Japan’s energy security into the future based on genuinely zero-emissions sources.

“Australia must prioritise a strategic conversation with the Japanese government, business and thought leaders to redefine energy security in a decarbonised world,” Oh said

“Existing Japanese investment in hydrogen production in Australia could be expanded to include critical minerals processing and Australian manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. This would support the Australian government’s economic strategy while securing Japan’s renewable energy supplies from a strategic ally.

“All this will require sensitivity and diplomatic skill. But shifting the paradigm on energy security in one of our most important bilateral relationships … could lead to real and lasting reductions, not only in Australian fossil fuel exports, but in global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Bowen announced on Wednesday that Australia would sign a global declaration at Cop28 on the recognition of low-carbon hydrogen certification schemes.

Opinions differ about the degree to which hydrogen can help cut emissions, but it is seen as key to replacing gas in some industrial sectors. The government has promised $2bn to kickstart a green hydrogen industry.

“We will continue working to ensure Australia’s renewable hydrogen is certified and verified around the world as being reliable and truly green,” the minister said.

Bowen flies to the climate summit later this week.

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