The Turnbull government rejected a landmark Chinese invitation to issue a formal joint statement on climate change earlier this year, Greenpeace has claimed, saying Australia vetoed an unprecedented step in the Asian power’s emerging international role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the Australian government has denied the claim and revealed the two countries’ energy departments were working on a “joint action plan” on climate change as part of their commitments under the Paris agreement.
According to Greenpeace East Asia senior climate policy adviser Li Shuo, the government quietly knocked back an offer – perhaps the first time the Chinese government had proactively sought such an arrangement – during Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to Australia in March.
Mr Li said the offer was “very, very significant” because it suggested China had become “diplomatically proactive” after previously being on the receiving end of invitations from the European Union and United States to outline mutual commitments on climate change.
He observed it would have been a concrete political signal for the international community amid the uncertainty triggered by the election of President Donald Trump, who has wound back American leadership on climate change and begun the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris accord.
“The Chinese delegation with Li Keqiang came with the proposal but that didn’t get the green light from the Australian side,” Mr Li said, adding that his awareness of it came from a directly involved figure in the Chinese government.
“It was clearly the intention from the Chinese side to build up international climate momentum. I think the proposed bilateral statement was part of that effort to send a signal back to the rest of the world and primarily the US.”
A spokesperson for the Australian government said it “did not decline an offer from the Chinese government earlier this year to make a joint statement on climate change” and labelled the March leaders’ meeting “highly successful”.
The spokesperson said the two states had also “discussed ways to strengthen bilateral co-operation and action on climate change” in the month leading up to the visit as part of regular ministerial meetings on the issue.
“This included opportunities to support the implementation of the Paris agreement through a joint action plan between China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy. These discussions are ongoing,” they said.
Seizing the opportunity of American withdrawal, Mr Xi’s regime has assumed a more prominent international role on climate change, stepping up co-operation with other countries and pursuing domestic efforts that include a national emissions trading scheme, cancelling dozens of coal-power projects and rapid development renewable power.
President Xi Jinping previously struck a historic climate agreement with former US president Barack Obama in late 2014 and the regime was also close to reaching a joint statement with the EU in June this year but it was never finalised after separate trade negotiations fell apart. Mr Xi has also inked a climate agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown.
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for approximately 30 per cent annually. It is followed by the US on 15 per cent, the EU’s 28 members on 10 per cent and then India, Russia and Japan on single digits. Australia, emitting just over 1 per cent, sits at approximately 15th. It falls into the group of relatively minor polluters that collectively make up around a third of global emissions.
Previously an advocate for sweeping action on climate change, Mr Turnbull has had to compromise since taking the leadership of a Liberal-National Coalition still internally divided on the issue. A significant portion of his party room are keen supporters of coal-fired power and some do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change.
Under the Paris accord, former prime minister Tony Abbott’s Coalition government committed to reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. His government also renegotiated the Renewable Energy Target in the electricity sector down to 23.5 per cent by 2020.
In the face of internal hostility, the government is currently redesigning a Clean Energy Target proposed by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, which would aim to have 42 per cent of Australia’s energy generated by lower emissions technologies by 2030. The government may loosen the CET to allow for high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power stations.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop used an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday morning, Australia time, to praise the Paris agreement and warn that the global economy could be “undermined by natural and man-made disasters”.
“Australia is a strong supporter of the Paris agreement, and here at the UN we have voiced our support specifically on risk mitigation for coral reefs, which are among the most valuable environments on our planet,” the Foreign Minister said.
She described climate change as one of a several “challenges that don’t respect national borders”.