Is Australia irresponsibly resourcing development in Asia?

Australian resource markets play an integral role developing the Asian energy market. Mineral exports undoubtedly drive Australia’s economy. Over %30 of Australian exports in 2012 comprised of coal, compromising Australia’s international environment leadership.Complementing the Indian owned Adani coal-mine in the Galilee Basin, Queensland, expanded shipping routes through the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s least efficient, ‘dirtiest’ coal power plant, Hazelwood in Victoria, Australia is increasingly associated with its recent label as ‘environmental vandal’.

Indifferent to environmental preservation and proactive mitigation of climate change, Australia’s reckless approach to the environment, preferences a pursuit of economic profit from mineral resource exploration. Australia has hinged growth on the emergence of neighbouring Asian markets and their increased want for materials to promote energy development.

Alternatively the shifting but nascent energy security and independence prerogative in the Asian geopolitical region sees continental powers China and India possessing increased means to pursue both renewable and nonrenewable energy technologies, while Australia, once an industry leader in renewable technologies, appears increasingly at odds with Asia’s growing recourse towards sustainable energy development. Meanwhile current policy compromising environmental protection in Australia has inappropriately demonstrated unsustainable energy and environment initiatives, while providing the resources for other countries to harm the environment.

The global community undoubtedly recognises the systemic risk of climate change and the swelling exogenous threat it poses. In spite of global and regional climate change mitigation, Australia remains committed to the fossil fuel industries it profits from, continuing to capitalise Asia’s saliency for fossil fuel exports. According to Dulal et. al. this short term context for developing states of Asia indicates ‘there is already a huge pent up demand for energy and as the economies continue to grow at high rate, both consumption and demand will increase’.

Coupled with global climate change recognition, rapid energy growth in Asian states will lead to increased sustainable energy production, with reduced environmental impact. A narrowing view of global energy markets and their evolving susceptibility to prevailing notions of sustainable energy development, places Australia on the exterior to global renewable energy development. Assessing energy exports and Asian market perspicacity for Australia, ambiguous climate change policy, undermines the prioritisation of fossil fuels in Asia’s augmenting market.

Leading risk governance academic Ortwin Renn condemns insensitivity to the global scale, interdependence, nonlinearity and stochasticity of climate change; warning of ‘the interpenetration of physical, environmental, economic and social manifestations of risks.’ By developing fossil fuel energy projects in developing Asian states, Australia exacerbates an already substantial climate footprint. Hinging economic development on the developmental energy requirements of Asian states, Australia’s trade actions erode global consensus on the interdependent risk of climate change.

By prioritising the growth of economic opportunities Australia’s disconcern extends as far as the economic bottom line preferences an industry inexplicably strangling the global environment. Adding to this Dulal et. al. note the restrictive effects of fossil fuel pricing on already disadvantaged Asian domestic markets, ‘increased reliance on fossil fuel could jeopardize long-term economic growth… as losses resulting from price volatility could have severe impact at the household level in the already poverty-stricken countries.’ (p. 304)

The economic rationale of Australia, intimates a market oriented approach to climate change risk, where contribution to the risk can be offset by sustainable investments elsewhere, with ultimate faith in the global economy correcting environmental threats. Dupont however highlights the stochastic costs Australia will be exposed to in the South-East Asian market; ‘accentuating existing income and resource inequities and compelling the poorer ‘South’ to confront the richer ‘North’. (p. 61) Contrary to the profit driven assumptions of Australia’s economic approach and  lack of reciprocity on climate change mitigation, the costs associated with climate change as mentioned, are interdependent with the greater regional and world economic arenas.

Regional shifts in national security affairs have transformed the Asian geopolitical region to stress new entitlements for energy independence. Established political support for access to domestic energy supplies, economic growth driven from energy production sectors and increased alleviation of poverty, underline states like Indonesia, prioritising both renewable and nonrenewable energy technologies. The longer term points of concern, are the internationally legal agreements aimed at altogether de-prioritising fossil fuel energy production.

A key step to the eradication of fossil fuel use, will be adaptation, an increasingly likely multilateral target due from COP21 in Paris. Pierre Noel extrapolates China’s growing energy security understanding and the role market adaptation can play facilitating ’an evolution whereby the so-called strategic approach to energy security…has receded as a rapid growth in energy imports and an internationalisation of Chinese energy …for a better understanding of global energy markets among the economic and political elite.’ Whereas Australia has supported technical and economic adaptation measures, its own role in refuting binding emission targets and reviewing renewable energy targets has demonstrated according to Peter Christoff an international ‘failure to “translate” the key narrative of the new discourse complex’. A complex increasingly at odds to domestic drivers promoting reductive energy and environmental policy in Australia.

Geographical, biological and geological diversity in Australia increases vulnerability to climate change. The cause and effect, stochasticity and nonlinearity relationships associated with anthropological climate change have profoundly entrenched consequences for Australia. The paucity of ambition on climate change mitigation, exemplified by Australian trade practices, shows disregard for the global harms caused by fossil fuel industries and associated macroeconomic cost volatilities. Anthony Burke suggests that this disregard is indicative of ‘elite and state-centric policies concerned with national security too often concerned with achieving security at the expense of other states and communities, making security meaningless.’

Enduring in relation to fossil fuel exports to Asia, Australia is undermining the collective environmental security and ambition of the region, regardless of any perceived benefit from coordinated energy development. Nevertheless the wilful disregard Australia’s perspective demonstrates on the matter is rationalised by threat analysis. Burke continues with a second insight on security and strategy, that ‘security threats are not objective, but are constructed through processes of political representation and may be affected by our own policy decisions.’ Further elements of international transparency in relation to the bifurcated ‘developed and developing’ United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emission reduction policy reviews, ostracise Australia to the greater Asia region, because of stringent reporting requirements as a ‘developed’ nation.

The critical question facing national and international governments is how to reconcile development demand and responsible environmental practices? Therefore Australia must demonstrate its willingness to contribute to coordinate with global efforts to curb the magnitude of climate change’s systemic risk. By continuing to pursue fossil fuel industry developments domestically and internationally, there is a clear and growing divide with the Asian region. Australia must act with less tolerance for the fractious multibillion dollar fossil fuel industry, accept the growing international mandate for sustainable energy infrastructure and transform its trade and development relationship with Asia. Only then will Australia be meeting its expectation as ‘the lucky country’.

Author: Rupert Christie is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne. Rupert has a keen interest in environmental conservation and the politics of human consumption.

This article was originally published in on June 5, 2015.

Photo Courtesy: Tom Jefferson / Greenpeace