Pacific leaders consider regional treaty banning new fossil fuel projects

Pacific Island countries are now considering the world’s first treaty banning new fossil fuel projects.  Following decisions to stop new coal mines in China, the USA and Indonesia, the Pacific’s lead could be the first step towards a global moratorium on coal mines.

Leaders from Pacific Island states last year called for a global moratorium on coal mines, as part of the historic Suva Declaration, signed at the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).  At this year’s meeting leaders discussed a regional treaty agreeing to open no new coal mines or other fossil fuel projects.

The proposal came from the Pacific Island Climate Action Network (PICAN), a diverse network of NGO and faith groups across the Pacific. Pacific Island governments will now work on the proposal for consideration next year.

Stopping new coal mines is essential to success of last year’s Paris agreement. The countries of the world agreed to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, towards 1.5. Getting there means doing lots of things, but it definitely means no new coal mines.

That is clear from International Energy Agency’s scenarios, despite misrepresentation from Australian politicians. In IEA models, a 50% chance of staying below 2 degrees requires no new coal capacity. In Australia, it means more than 95% of Australia’s coal has to stay in the ground. Getting to the 1.5 target will need much stronger action.

With the world’s nations now moving fast towards ratifying the Paris agreement, Pacific Island leaders have put on the table a crucial next step.

Just as ambition on climate has tended to come from the bottom-up, from local and regional action, rather than the top-down – a principle now embedded in the Paris agreement’s pledge and review system – regional action on stopping new projects inconsistent with the Paris Agreement could be powerful.

What’s more, the Pacific would be building on recent decisions from the world’s biggest coal producers. In a trend that has gone largely unremarked in Australia, since Paris both China and the USA announced three year moratoria on new coal mines. More recently Indonesia’s President banned new mines, as well as new palm oil.

Issues other than climate change have been in the foreground of these decisions. China’s coal and electricity markets are vastly oversupplied and its cities are choked with smog. Indonesia is looking to protect its remaining forests and peat lands. USA is reviewing the leasing mechanisms for coal mines on public land which delivered large subsidies to coal companies.

By taking on a regional treaty for a moratorium, the Pacific proposal could be a tipping point for serious global diplomatic effort to end of the age of coal. 

The Pacific has form when it comes to international diplomatic cooperation, for example in establishing the Treaty of Rarotonga for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. Australia and New Zealand played important roles in making that happen.

Many academic researchers have argued supply-side approaches to fossil fuels can drive abatement, limit carbon leakage and send strong moral and economic signals for international action, especially when lead from the developed world.

Australia’s has a bigger share of traded coal than Saudi Arabia has of traded oil. Limiting supply would push up prices and so impact on emissions by encouraging transition. It would also be a powerful international push towards a global moratorium, as world leading scientists and economists say is necessary.

Stopping new coal mines also makes economic sense. It would prevent gambling on stranded assets and prevent taxpayer subsidises. Higher prices would benefit the existing mines, which are suffering with current low coal prices. 

And yet our Prime Minister says that stopping new mines “would not make the blindest bit of difference”, at the same time that his Ministers say new mines are morally necessary!

Clearly, other world leaders disagree. According to The Australia Institute polling, so do most Australians.

With small pacific island states considering a regional moratorium, and many of the world’s biggest producers already stopping new mines at home, Australia’s excuses for not embracing this idea are well and truly depleted. The upcoming Pacific Island Forum, in September, will show whether Turnbull is ready to act, in his words, as a “trustee for future generations”.