Australian and UK defence commit to joint action on climate

The development of an Australia-UK joint climate action plan as part of AUKMIN’s defence and security pillar foregrounds the important role of the two countries’ defence ministers and agencies in responding to climate change. Where Australia-UK defence cooperation is aimed at adapting to and mitigating climate impacts via AUKMIN and other complementary means, it could be a fruitful way to build on the Britain’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific, including its stepped-up profile in the Pacific. As well as hopefully being welcomed in the Pacific, effective Australia-UK defence engagement on climate could set a standard for other countries to aspire to and benchmark against.

Although historically conceptualised as a non-traditional security challenge, climate change is increasingly recognised and acted on by nation states as a core security issue. Within the 2021 Integrated Review, the British government noted that ‘climate change and biodiversity loss are important multipliers of other global threats and are guaranteed to worsen over the next decade’. For example, Russia’s weaponisation of energy supply chains in the context of the ongoing Ukraine conflict highlights the dual geostrategic and environmental reasoning behind Britain’s desire to reduce its fossil fuel dependence. 

Cutting fossil fuel emissions and achieving other climate-related aspirations are outlined in the 2021 climate change strategy of the British Ministry of Defence. Complementing this strategy is the ministry’s 2023 publication, which outlines the use of alternate energy sources in the training, deployment, operation and sustainment of UK forces. The emphasis of UK defence on climate mitigation through such initiatives is welcome due to its role in directly generating 50 percent of the central government’s emissions. 

Importantly for Australia-UK defence cooperation in the Pacific, the ministry’s climate strategy sets out a vision for Britain to act as, and to be recognised as, a global leader when responding to geopolitical and conflict-related threats exacerbated by climate change. Aside from environmental effects, ‘[m]ajor increases in migration, the rise of terrorism and conflict over resources’ are just some of the security implications of climate change identified by the UK Defence Command Paper 2023. This gels with Australia’s approach in the Pacific, which recognises the connections between security, migration and other dimensions of climate adaptation, as seen in the Falepili Union treaty with Tuvalu. 

Although Britain’s security focus remains on Europe, this year’s AUKMIN statement demonstrates that the country is working with the grain of the Pacific region. The statement echoes the Pacific Island Forum’s 2018 Boe Declaration which notes that ‘climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people’. The Pacific Island Forum’s, and now the UK’s, viewpoint on the region’s vulnerability to climate change is aligned with the United Nations’s assessment of the situation. 

Furthermore, Britain in recent years has addressed regional climate impacts through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). For example, Britain deployed a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel as part of the multilateral response to the 2022 Tonga volcanic eruption and tsunami and 2023 Vanuatu twin cyclones. The UK’s provision of HADR complements wider initiatives aimed at addressing the climate impacts including through the UK’s provision of climate financing to the Pacific. 

There are several ways that Australia and Britain could deepen cooperation on climate change in the Pacific, including in the defence sphere. At leader level, climate change is certain to be a focus when Samoa hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October, which will bring countries such as the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Australia and Britain could consider ways to support SIDS-led climate initiatives, including in security areas, at CHOGM and at the UN. 

Below the leader level, Britain should work with Australia and the Pacific Island countries to examine how it could play an expanded role through regional mechanisms. British junior foreign ministers are more frequently attending the dialogue partners day attached to the Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting, and the UK has supported the forum’s plans for climate adaptation and non-traditional security.  

More specifically on defence, Britain could explore ways to become more engaged in the  South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting, where it has observer status alongside Japan and the US. Subject to support from all member countries, Britain might contribute to the resilience road map and other climate security initiatives.  

Canberra should not assume that France’s role in the region’s defence architecture precludes greater British engagement. Sore feelings over AUKUS notwithstanding, defence ministries in Britain and France are again looking at ways to develop cooperation, including sequencing deployment of naval assets in the Indo-Pacific, and both countries see climate change as a priority. 

Similarly, Britain could explore establishing a stronger links to the mechanism for working with Pacific countries on HADR, noting its multilateral HADR engagement in the aftermath of the 2022 Tonga volcanic eruption and tsunami, and other disasters in the region. A longstanding reciprocal agreement already allows Britain to deliver aid to the Pacific through the Australian humanitarian logistics facilities in Brisbane. The recently announced Australia-UK status of forces agreement could further smooth Britain’s contribution to HADR operations in the region. 

Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program and Pacific Maritime Security Program demonstrate how defence can extend engagement beyond the minority of Pacific Island countries with formal militaries. Britain’s modest defence engagement in the Pacific can deliver greater returns by working under the aegis of Australian programs and logistical arrangements without sacrificing a distinctly British brand and voice in the region. These synergies can and should apply to cooperation on climate change. 

From Australia’s perspective, a defence partnership with Britain to help respond to the effects of climate change in the region makes sense. Australia knows Britain brings historical baggage in the Pacific, including its colonial past and Cold War-era nuclear testing. However, the UK overall enjoys a good reputation, and Pacific Island countries have broadly welcomed its return to the region, including its climate mitigation and adaptation-related activities. The persistent presence in the region of two Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels adds further resources for combating illegal fishing, which will become an even bigger concern as fish species migrate in response to rising seawater temperatures. Since the Australian and British hydrographic offices (both defence agencies) are the principal charting authorities for some Pacific Island countries, the two could work together with SIDS in the International Maritime Organisation headquartered in London. 

Climate change is much more than an environmental or biodiversity issue. The strong relationship between climate change and security highlights the importance of prioritising climate action within the work of the British Ministry of Defence. The climate crisis in the Pacific, largely caused by carbon emissions from developed countries, requires a forward-leaning approach from Britain and other counterparts, including Australia. Although we will be waiting until AUKMIN 2025 for full details of the UK-Australia joint climate action plan, in the meantime there is much more that Britain can do within the Pacific in responding to this existential security threat.