Canberra Times Opinion Piece: Safeguard Mechanism is Not Reassuring for Many Pacific Island Communities

Opinion Piece by the ERC Director 'Alopi Latukefu Published in The Canberra Times

As a Pasifika Australian deeply connected to my heritage, and in the face of the current Parliamentary debate on the Federal Government’s proposed Safeguard Mechanism, I feel a duty to speak up.

I am an Australian citizen born of a Tongan father who was an Associate Professor of Pacific History. The first fifteen years of my life were spent in Papua New Guinea and involved extensive travel across the region, including to my ancestral home, the island Kingdom of Tonga.

My forefathers navigated the great oceans of our region, thriving in the Pacific for millenia and developing rich cultures and traditions that remain a fundamental part of who we are today. Yet in the face of the climate crisis, many in the Pacific stand to lose it all.

The oceans we once fearlessly faced – we now face with trepidation.  Indeed, if the world continues on its current emissions reduction trajectory, we are likely to see our planet warm up by approximately 2.7°C by the end of this century[1].  This scenario would see numerous communities in the Pacific lose their homelands.  Where will our Pacific family go and how will they maintain the core of who they are?

Since its election, our Australian Government has worked hard to strengthen its relationships with Pacific Island nations. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has highlighted Australia’s commitment to working with its Pacific neighbours to address the existential climate crisis threatening the region. Australia’s joint COP31 bid with the Pacific is testament to that, along with Labor’s increased emissions reduction target of 43% by 2030.  So why then has our government proposed such a flawed way of achieving its stated ambitions via its Safeguard Mechanism? 

Introduced by the previous Coalition government, the aim of Labor’s re-vamped Safeguard Mechanism is to put a limit on emissions from Australia’s largest industrial sites.  These sites collectively produce 28% of Australia’s emissions.  The government has estimated that its Safeguard Mechanism will result in a savings of 205 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide-Equivalent gases[2] by the end of the decade, helping Australia to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target.

At the same time, however, the same government is refusing to rule out the proposed 117 coal and gas projects already in the pipeline.  If they all proceeded, these new fossil fuel projects would release almost 1.7 billion more Carbon Dioxide-equivalent emissions annually[3].  Approving these pipeline projects would nullify any emissions savings achieved via the Safeguard Mechanism. 

The International Energy Agency has warned that the world must stop opening new fossil fuel projects if our planet is to stay within safe limits of global heating.  So what is the benefit of a Safeguard Mechanism to the Pacific if it cannot rule out new fossil fuel projects? Very little indeed and certainly far from enough.

There are other fundamental flaws with the government’s approach, not least of which is its over-reliance on so-called “carbon offsets”.

Under Labor’s Safeguard Mechanism, companies would be required to cut the intensity of their emissions by 4.9% a year. However, companies would be able to choose the extent to which these cuts are achieved on site and how much comes from buying carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets enable a polluting company to make up for the greenhouse gases it has emitted by funding an action somewhere else that removes the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere or prevents the production of carbon emissions in the first place. 

A single carbon offset is calculated to represent one tonne of Carbon Dioxide.  Unfortunately, whether such offsets work in practice is far from certain. Scientists argue that an offset created through forest regeneration or forest protection is not equal to a tonne released from fossil fuels. While the latter can persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years, there is no way of ensuring that the former survives anywhere near as long.

Under Labor’s Safeguard Mechanism, companies will be able to buy unlimited numbers of offsets in order to meet the 4.9% intensity reduction cap imposed by government.

All this isn’t good news for the Pacific nor for Australia’s strategic relationship with its neighbours.  For now, our government’s public statements highlighting its commitment to the Pacific are taken in good faith by leaders across our region. However, this situation will not last if Australia does not put its words into action.

For a “united Pacific”, regional stability, the survival of our homelands and its peoples, we need Australia to act in the public interest by stopping new fossil fuels projects and directing companies to reduce the intensity of their emissions – independently from their use of offsets.

I call on the Australian government to:

  • Stop all new coal and gas projects
  • Identify ways of prioritising genuine emissions reduction by polluting companies; and
  • Limit their use of carbon offsets to meet the emission intensity cap set by government.


‘Alopi Latukefu is the newly appointed Director of the Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education, a Sydney-based human rights centre with a key focus on promoting the voices of Pacific Islanders on climate change.





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