By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu
In a marathon leaders’ retreat that continued well into the night, with often heated debate, the Pacific Islands Forum has issued a joint communique and a new declaration on climate change.
Throughout this week in Tuvalu, the Australian delegation has defended a series of negotiating red lines against strong pressure from island leaders, seeling more urgent responses to the climate crisis from the largest Forum member.
During the final development of the Forum’s annual agenda, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke and Australian officials insisted on the removal of references to coal, establishing a target below 1.5 degrees Celsius for global warming, and being required to announce next year a strategy for zero emissions by 2050.
Islands Business asked Prime Minister Morrison if the pleas of island leaders had persuaded him to change his government’s policy, refusing to make further financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund. He replied: “No, it hasn’t, because I just want to invest directly in helping the Pacific family here. I don’t need to send a cheque via Geneva or New York or wherever it has to go.” The GCF Secretariat is actually in Incheon, South Korea, which he should know, given Australia was previously co-chair of the global climate fund.
Tense arguments in the retreat
In the end, however, all Forum members agreed to the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now - Securing the Future of our Blue Pacific.”
Forum host Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Morrison presented a united front at the post-conference press conference (delayed until Friday morning after leaders debated long into the night). But this diplomatic façade could not belie the damage done to Australia’s reputation and Morrison’s relationship with some leaders.
Sopoaga acknowledged that there were heated moments during the leaders retreat: "We expressed very strongly during our exchange, between me and Scott. I said: ‘You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.’”
“That was the tone of the discussion. Please don’t expect that he comes and we bow down or that.
“We were exchanging flaring language, not swearing, but of course you know, expressing the concerns of leaders and I was very happy with the exchange of ideas, it was frank. Prime Minister Morrison, of course, stated his position and I stated my position and other leaders: we need to save these people.”
There were two occasions where the meeting almost broke down without agreement, but after a 12-hour marathon, a final compromise on wording was achieved. Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has used his Twitter account to express concern about the final compromises by some fellow Forum Island Countries, tweeting: “Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”
After the meeting, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said: “Everyone had to shift their positions. It was very fierce and very frank, and some people just didn’t want to move. But in the end, everyone had to move a bit.”
Regenvanu told Islands Business that overall Vanuatu was happy with the final Kainaki II climate declaration, which will be presented to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September. Leaders will call on Secretary General Antonio Guterres to urgently appoint a Special Adviser on climate change and security.
“I think the wording is strong,” Regenvanu said. “There’s reference to 1.5 degrees throughout, there’s reference to the IPCC report throughout, there’s references to achieving net zero emissions, eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Most of the key language we want to be included that has not been included in the past is there.”
Leaders noted (but did not endorse) the proposal for a United Nations General Assembly Resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.
Despite the deletion of most references to coal and wordsmithing to give flexibility to all parties, the language of the declaration may cause some grief at home for Scott Morrison. His conservative Liberal/National Coalition government contains many people who are resistant to the Pacific’s ongoing call for urgent action on climate, including the closure of coal mines and reduction of fossil fuel exports.
In the face of ongoing climate denial in Australia amongst conservative members of the government, the Kainaki II declaration states: “The science is non-negotiable. Urgent action by the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical to keep us on the 1.5°C pathway.
“Right now, climate change and disasters are impacting all our countries. Our seas are rising, oceans are warming, and extreme events such as cyclones and typhoons, flooding, drought and king tides are frequently more intense, inflicting damage and destruction to our communities and ecosystems and putting the health of our peoples at risk. All around the world, people affected by disaster and climate change-induced displacement are losing their homes and livelihoods, particularly the most vulnerable atoll nations.”
Forum leaders welcomed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stating that it “remains the authoritative scientific body on climate change and is regarded as providing governments the best available science on climate change. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C indicates that in model pathways with no or limited overshoots of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”
Important provisions of the declaration call on “all parties to the Paris Agreement to
meet or exceed their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in order to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”
They called on G20 countries to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020; rapidly implement their commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; and accelerate support for the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.
New vision for Forum
Key decisions from the final communiqué include plans for the development of a vision statement on Pacific regionalism for coming decades, and a range of initiatives on Forum governance.
Leaders endorsed the development of the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which must ensure social, cultural, environmental and economic integrity, sovereignty and security in order to protect people, place and prospects of the Blue Pacific”.
The Forum Secretariat is tasked to prepare a draft strategy for leaders’ consideration at next year’s Forum in Vanuatu. However, at their July meeting, Foreign Ministers stressed that there needed to be a mid-term target of 2030, with clear objectives set out over the next decade in line with the period of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Leaders endorsed the concept for the establishment of the regionally owned and led Pacific Resilience Facility, although there were some reservations from Fiji. Samoa has offered to host the new funding facility for resilience initiatives by island government and communities.
There were a range of decisions on oceans and fisheries policy, including moves towards a regular Regional Fisheries Ministers Meeting. Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to conclude negotiations on all outstanding maritime boundaries claims and zones, although there are many ongoing disputes between member states over conflicting claims.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga confirmed: “We spoke very strongly against the leakage of nuclear waste into the Pacific and about the need to address them as urgently as possible.”
Leaders expressed concern “for the significance of the potential threat of nuclear contamination, World War II wrecks and unexploded ordnances to the health and security of the Blue Pacific her people and prospects, acknowledged the importance of addressing the long-standing issues of nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific and called for the operationalisation of the provisions of the Rarotonga Treaty, as necessary.”
To support Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who has pushed the issue of nuclear and toxic contaminants throughout her term, the Forum agreed to commission “a comprehensive, independent and objective scientific assessment of the contamination issue in the Pacific, including in the nuclear test site at Runit Island in the Marshall Islands”.
Leaders agreed to request a meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the current and emerging issues of the nuclear testing legacy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and in the Blue Pacific.
The Forum endorsed an Action Plan to implement the Boe Declaration adopted at the 2018 Forum meeting in Nauru, and agreed to set up a Sub-Committee of the Forum Officials’ Committee on Regional Security.
Reflecting the multiple, conflicting positions on climate change during the week, and the demands of Smaller Island States (SIS), leaders “endorsed with qualification, the Summary of Decisions of the 28th Smaller Island States Leaders Meeting and directed the Secretariat to institute a process for tabling the SIS Leaders’ decisions at Leaders Meetings.”
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