HOST: Pat, you have called this funding, to quote you, “cynical window dressing”. Can you explain that?
PAT CONROY: It is cynical window dressing. Firstly, there isn’t a single cent of new money. This is $500 million out of the existing aid budget, an aid budget that’s been cut by $11 billion since 2013. That’s point one about why this is window dressing.
HOST: On that point, Scott Morrison says it is additional funding.
CONROY: Well, his own minister, Minister Alex Hawke, confirmed this afternoon that this is coming out of the existing aid budget, so it is not a single new dollar. It’s money already allocated in the aid budget that they’re cutting from somewhere else. For example, when they allocated more money to the Pacific last year they pulled out all funding for Pakistan, which is incredibly significant given it’s the heart of Islamic extremism and insurgency in the South Asia. So, first off, not a single new dollar. Secondly, our Pacific neighbours have made it very clear that the most important thing we can do as a nation is to commit to more ambitious climate change goals, more ambitious emissions reduction targets that are consistent with the Paris Treaty. At the moment greenhouse gas emissions in this country are going up, our target is woeful and inadequate, and on top of that the Government is committed to using Kyoto carry-over units to make it even easier to achieve their inadequate target. And that’s why the Prime Minister of Tuvalu was very clear that that is the main game.
HOST: He mentioned coal mines. Had your party been elected in the last election they would have gone ahead, Adani would still be a thing, and much of the ALP is committed to the exploration of coal.
CONROY: Under the UN FCCC accounting processes we’re responsible for domestic emissions. We are responsible for emissions that are released as part of the Australian economy, and the Labor Party’s target that we took to the last election was a 45 per cent cut by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, as a reasonable and responsible contribution to the Paris target. At the moment, greenhouse gas emissions are going up under this Government, they have no plan to reach even minus 26 per cent, which is their target, and I think that is really where we should be concentrating. How do we cut emissions in the domestic economy rather than engaging in a convoluted argument about the UN policy-making architecture?
HOST: What about the emissions that we export in the form of coal?
CONROY: Well, as I said, under the UN accounting principles, we’re not responsible for those.
HOST: What about a moral responsibility, never mind the UN?
CONROY: Well, I say to people, let’s go back to the main game. We can talk about embodied emissions in coal or embodied emissions in things coming to this country like cars and planes, but the most important thing is to take action to cut emissions in this country. As I said, emissions in this country are going up, year on year since 2014. We have an absolute responsibility to cut emissions in the domestic economy; let’s make sure we do that first. We can argue about all those other things later. But there’s no point banning coal mine exports if our emissions in this country keep rising as they are now.
HOST: What do you make of how the Tuvalu PM responded to the commitment from the Australian Government?
CONROY: Well, it was incredibly frank. But it is very consistent with the language that has been used by a whole series of Pacific leaders. Since the Step Up in the Pacific was announced in November last year, we’ve had six Pacific prime ministers, presidents or foreign ministers make it very clear that without Australia actually increasing our action on climate change the Step Up will not succeed. And this is an era where typically diplomats are very careful about the language they use. They couldn’t be more direct in saying the Step Up, throwing billions of dollars at the region, is nothing if we don’t cut our domestic emissions and stop accounting tricks like using the Kyoto carry-over units.
HOST: Domestic emissions are one thing, but this is becoming a theme. We’ve heard from the PM of Tuvalu today, we heard from the Prime Minister of Fiji yesterday, the thing they are talking about is that word, coal. And that goes to Australia’s input of coal into the world energy system.
CONROY: Well, they make three points. The first point, and this is the point they always make, is first we have to cut our domestic emissions. That is the first point they make. The second point is that they want us to move away from coal-fired power domestically. That is occurring in the market already because renewable energy is not only cheaper than new coal-fired power it’s cheaper than existing coal-fired power. So that transition is occurring right now. The third is they want to see us reducing our exports of coal. One point I would make is that 65 per cent of Australia’s coal exports are metallurgical coal – coal for steelmaking – and at the moment there isn’t another way of making steel in industrial quantities in the world without using coking coal.
HOST: But are you saying when you burn that it doesn’t affect the carbon emissions?
CONROY: Well, it releases carbon emissions, but there is actually physically no way of making steel in large quantities without using coking coal. So, even the activists in this debate who are articulating that we should ban coal they really are referring to banning thermal coal. And yes some people have that view. My view is we could spend all our time arguing whether we should shut down Adani, whether the Galilee Basin should be closed down, and that lets this Government and other people off the hook because the one thing they directly control, that not only are they morally responsible for but legally responsible for under the UN, is our domestic emissions. And they are going up right now because this Government got rid of the carbon price, this Government has neutered the renewable energy target, and they don’t have a single policy aimed at taking action on climate change. I understand the arguments about embodied emissions in coal, but I just urge people to focus on the thing that we can most directly control and that’s our own domestic emissions.
HOST: It sounds almost like from the tenor of the funding announcement today that what it prescribes in those nations that receive it, that we have a more coherent energy policy around renewables for Tuvalu than we do for ourselves.
CONROY: Absolutely. The rank hypocrisy of Prime Minister Morrison bragging about the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – he voted against establishing it and his party has tried to abolish it repeatedly. And it means nothing for nations like Tuvalu where the highest point of land is one-and-a-half metres above sea level. These are nations that face an existential threat and unless nations like Australia actually cut our carbon pollution, actually make a meaningful contribution to the Paris Treaty, they can have all the solar panels on the roofs they want but they won’t have a nation in 40 or 50 years’ time.
HOST: What’s the message we should take to the Pacific Islands Forum?
CONROY: That we are committed to taking action on climate change. That we will increase our ambition to cut carbon pollution by 45 per cent by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. That we won’t use cheap accounting tricks like using Kyoto carry-over units. That is the only way we can have credibility with our Pacific friends. It is the only thing that is consistent with the Paris Treaty and the Boe Declaration that we signed up to last year and without that the Pacific Step Up will fail and Australia will have less credibility and standing in the Pacific than it already has.
You can listen to the interview here