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Op ed: Foreign aid cuts offer a cruel climate for those in need

This piece was first published by the The Big Smoke on 1 April 2014.

The Abbott government’s downgrading of action on climate change combined with the savage cuts to the Australian foreign aid budget are set to significantly increase the levels of poverty and the hardship that millions of our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region live through on a daily basis.

The Coalition requirement that aid programs deliver for Australia’s national interest instead of poverty alleviation is also driving down the effectiveness of our overseas development work.

Our priority should be working on a transition away from the nation’s fossil fuel dependence. This would help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate chaos and drive an end to the billion-dollar subsidises allocated to coal and related industries.

These changes are urgently needed so Australia can assist people in low-income countries who are already dealing with the impact of climate change in regions such as the Pacific Islands, South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – relocating from low-lying atolls to higher land; dealing with years of extreme drought; rebuilding after devastating typhoons.

Oxfam have identified that there are an estimated 26 million climate refugees, and that by 2050, 200 million people a year will be on the move due to hunger, environmental degradation and loss of land due to climate change.

The climate chaos that our neighbours are coping with should send a clear message to the Australian government that now is the time to increase our overseas aid budget, not cut it.

This message is expected to be reinforced with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due out today. It deals with adaptation to climate change. The programs and projects that will be required in developing countries will not come cheap – a fact that should reinforce to the Australian government the notion that climate funding needs to be a priority within the aid budget.

The question then shifts to where the money will come from. Recent experience has shown that both Labor and Coalition governments readily cut and reallocated aid money to suit their political interests, rather than increase the allocation in line with their promises to the Australian public, and in terms of our international commitments.

These trends suggest that there is no chance that Australia under the Coalition government will do the right thing and commit the required funds.

Last week, recommendations in a Senate Report on “Australia’s overseas aid and development assistance program”  showed a worrying bipartisan approach from the Coalition and Labor parties to limit the allocation of money for overseas aid programs for the next ten years.

In this report, Labor and the Coalition failed to even mention the 0.7 per cent target of Gross National Income for the aid budget by 2015 – a promise made by former Prime Minister John Howard – when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000. Most worrying was that the 0.5 per cent target has now been pushed out to 2024-25.

The Greens have continuously worked for the 0.7 per cent target, and in the Senate last year introduced a Bill to protect the aid budget from further cuts and keep Australia on track to give more, and better, aid.

Australia’s aid allocation is now 0.33 per cent – less than half of what we committed to 14 years ago.

The worrying direction Australia is taking on climate aid was again on display at last year’s United Nations’ climate change talks in Poland, where the Abbott government refused to commit any money to the Green Climate Fund,  a means to assist developing countries dealing with the impacts of climate change.

The money is available. The issue is, do governments in developed countries have the political will to end fossil fuel subsidises? This is public money that is now estimated at an annual one trillion US dollars.

In Australia, companies involved in fossil fuel projects that are actually harming people and the environment receive government subsidies at about $10 billion a year.

With the G20 to be held in Australia in November, these issues of cutting fossil fuel subsidies and boosting the aid budget will be in the spotlight. In 2010, the G20 promised to remove fossil fuel subsidies. 

The latest IPCC report highlights why Australia and the world’s rich countries must honour this commitment.

Overseas aid is part of being a good neighbour and a responsible world citizen.

As the majority of the people set to bear the brunt of climate change are inhabiting low-income countries, now is not the time to dodge our responsibility.

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