As leaders gather in Suva for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum, island nations are also gearing up for the next round of global climate negotiations, to be held in November in Egypt. This week’s Forum summit in Fiji will consider a proposal from Australia, to co-host a Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change alongside island states – bringing tens of thousands of delegates to the region to discuss the climate emergency.
After last year’s global climate negotiations in Glasgow provided mixed results for Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), there’s even greater challenges ahead this November.
This year’s 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) will take place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh from 7-18 November. Egypt’s ambassador for Australia and the Pacific, Mahmoud Mohamed Gamal Eldin Zayed, told Islands Business that the climate talks will focus on action, rather than new commitments.
“To describe our objective for the conference in one word, it’s ‘implementation’,” he said. “We want to get things done. Of course, the conference will discuss mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage and finance, but above all we want to put pledges into action and build on existing achievements.”
Ambassador Zayed noted that hosting the COP in Egypt will be a crucial opportunity to address challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While the summit has been described in the international media as an “African COP”, Zayed says the agenda is global, not local.
“It’s a good chance for us to host this conference so we can bring into focus the priorities of developing countries,” said Zayed. “There is an African component in it, of course, but it is also for the Pacific because we are similar developing countries. The Pacific has some unique challenges, especially having climate as an existential threat, but there are many commonalities facing developing countries in both Africa and the Pacific.”
For a migratory bird, it’s 16,000 kilometres to fly directly from Nadi to Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourism resort town on the south-eastern coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. For those of us without wings, however, there’s quite a few stops on the way, passing through transit points with a variety of COVID restrictions, time changes and airline connections.
For government and civil society delegations from the Pacific seeking to travel to Sharm el-Sheik, it will be costly and time consuming exercise.
Egypt’s Ambassador Zayed acknowledges: “There is of course the challenge of distance, but travel is easier now and we have the experience of previous COPs. It’s much easier to move around the world than during the Covid restrictions, and the world is much more vaccinated than during the height of the crisis. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem travelling to Egypt.”
Others are not so sure, given the experience of getting to COP26 in Glasgow.
At least year’s summit, only eight of 14 Forum island countries were formally represented in Scotland. Just 146 Pacific island delegates made it to Glasgow, out of the 40,000 people who participated in events around the summit. For Tagaloa Cooper-Halo, “Glasgow was the hardest COP for us because it was in the middle of the pandemic, so we had to plan, with contingency plans and contingencies for the contingencies!”
Cooper-Halo is Director of Climate Change Resilience at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in Apia. She stresses that – despite the cost – it is vital that all Forum members are represented at this year’s climate talks: “Our participation goes to the heart of this bring an equitable agreement. There is a great push to get Pacific countries to Egypt – it’s quite difficult to engage in a process if you’re not there. These are the kind of meetings that you really need to be there in person.”
SPREP is working with Forum member countries to assist with practical advice on travel routes, accommodation, entry and re-entry requirements.
“We’ve started to put together logistic requirements for Sharm el-Sheik, but there’s not a lot of information,” Cooper-Halo said. “We also don’t have the same relationship with Egypt that we have with the UK Presidency. We had access to the people we needed to talk to through the UK High Commission in Fiji. This time, it’s a lot harder.”
Like many areas reliant on tourism, Sharm el-Sheik was battered by the travel restrictions of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Earlier this year, environment, human rights and indigenous organisations raised concern that tourist hotels in the Egyptian resort town were now jacking up their prices, to take advantage of the thousands of delegates arriving for the COP.
After meeting Egyptian representatives last month in Bonn, Cooper-Halo said that SPREP had begun discussions about the way travel and accommodation costs will disadvantage Small Island Developing States.
“The Egyptians have since indicated they will put a cap on the cost of 2-star and 3-star hotels, because their prices are going through the roof,” she said. “You can’t book accommodation through online sites, so you have to book through the official portal and that’s expensive. All this, combined with the distance that our people have to travel to Egypt, is just compounding the stress of getting there. There really isn’t a lot of information.”
Speaking to Islands Business in Canberra, Ambassador Zayed agreed there are logistical challenges but noted: “We’ve spoken to our friends in the Pacific about how we can work together to facilitate participation in the conference. We are at an early stage about logistics and many things are still being negotiated at this point, but we are open to any complaint or request, at any point from our partners. We want to learn from the experiences of others who hosted the conference, like COP26 in Glasgow, to ensure easier access for the Pacific countries to all events.”
Coordination at home
To cope with these logistic and technical challenges, the agencies in the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP) are drawing on two decades of COPs to better prepare and co-ordinate for the event.
Last February, a ‘One Pacific’ team met to review their work in Glasgow and start preparing for COP27. Countries highlighted the importance of the Pacific Climate Champions – government ministers who could negotiate at political level, alongside the technical experts who work on the nuts and bolts of international climate agreements.
This year, negotiating teams are being co-ordinated for each of seven thematic areas, such as climate finance, adaptation, or the Article 6 rulebook to implement the Paris agreement. For each topic, a Pacific country serves as the designated lead, with a CROP technical agency in support (for example, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown served as champion for climate finance in Glasgow, and Rarotonga will take the lead on this crucial area at COP27).
“Dialogue on Loss and Damage is going to be front and centre for the Pacific in Egypt,” said Cooper-Halo. “The conversation on climate finance is not over. The conversation on Loss and Damage has just started.”
Egypt’s Ambassador Rayed agrees that “climate finance is going to be one of the central pillars of the conference,” but stresses that the host nation is seeking to bring people together, rather than highlight areas of disagreement between developed and developing countries.
“These differences are differences of degree rather than differences of kind,” he said. “Now, there’s not much difference on the science and the need to take action. It’s about the extent that each country will contribute: the NDCs are being revised. It’s a problem of who should do what, and when. It’s about whether we are fulfilling our obligations, and whether we can do more. All stakeholders should work together in a spirit of cooperation: we have countries, we have the private sector, we have the NGOs and all should be involved.”
That’s not going to be easy. Since the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down on domestic dissent. Hundreds of activists from civil society groups as well as opposition parties have been jailed, and there are widespread allegations of torture and abuse. The human rights organisation Amnesty International reports that “Egyptian human rights defenders have been subjected to arbitrary detention, summons for coercive questioning, threats of closing independent human rights organisations, travel bans, asset freezes and other draconian tactics to shut down civic work.”
Environmental and human rights groups have raised concern that COP27 will not feature the wide-ranging civil society lobbying and protests that are a central feature of all previous COPs. Amnesty International has called on all governments participating in COP27 “to press the Egyptian authorities to ensure the safe, effective and meaningful participation of Egyptian and non-Egyptian civil society actors.”
A COP in Oceania?
Given the challenges of travelling to the other side of the globe, why not host a COP in this part of the world?
Fiji was President of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in 2017, but the actual summit was held in Bonn, Germany. This week in Suva, however, Pacific leaders have started debating an Australian proposal to hold a COP in Oceania.
As she launched ‘Labor’s Plan for a Stronger Pacific Family’ on 26 April, Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced “our bid to co-host a future UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Australia with our Pacific partners.”
The issue was discussed at the Forum Foreign Ministers meeting last Friday, and will come before the region’s Presidents and Prime Ministers as they meet later this week. But has the newly elected Australian Labor Party (ALP) government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese shifted climate policy enough to win endorsement from neighbouring island states?
As Prime Minister of Tuvalu in 2019, Enele Sopoaga hosted the last face-to-face Forum leaders’ summit in Funafuti. The annual leaders’ retreat dragged on well into the night, as Sopoaga heatedly debated climate policy with then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It left a sour taste in the mouth of many island leaders: after the meeting, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama – this year’s Forum chair – described Morrison’s performance as “condescending” and “arrogant.”
Now in opposition, Enele Sopoaga is a member of Pacific Elders Voice, a network of former island presidents and prime Ministers who are campaigning on the Forum’s Blue Pacific agenda.
Sopoaga warmly welcomed the new Australian government’s stronger commitments on emissions’ reductions, but raised a note of caution: “To gather the trust of Pacific island countries, the new Albanese government must show that they are serious and truthful to their words, their rhetoric – that their statements are going to be translated into concrete, meaningful and practical actions.”
Sopoaga told Islands Business: “As we all know, past federal Australian governments have shown a deaf ear to the concerns and the voices of Pacific island countries – not only at the Pacific Islands Forum meetings, but at every Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC.”
“We appreciate very much the ambition of the new government to co-host a COP, perhaps COP29, in the Pacific,” he said. “There may be some benefits. But we want to underscore again: the issue is not the venue of the Conference of the Parties. It is the concrete, meaningful actions needed to be done urgently. The more we delay, the more serious the loss and damage will be felt by the island communities that have contributed nothing at all to the causes of climate change.”
“It is my hope that this is appreciated better by the leadership of Australia and New Zealand – the urgency is not the hosting of the COP, but actions by everybody. Unless action is taken on mitigation, adaptation and financing for loss and damage, we don’t believe we can cope as Pacific Island countries to provide security for our peoples.”
Throughout this week, church and civil society groups are mobilising around the Forum meeting in Suva to highlight the climate emergency as the greatest threat to regional security. A coalition of groups is rallying support behind Vanuatu’s proposal seeking an advisory opinion at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the human rights impacts of climate change.
Vishal Prasad, a campaigner with Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, stresses: “It’s important that if we are to co-host a COP in the Pacific, that it is truly about Pacific issues. This week’s meeting is an opportunity for Australia and island states to show solidarity around Vanuatu’s proposal – a solidarity that would be crucial for any regional COP in future.”
Pacific Elders Voice have set out a more ambitious agenda for action, endorsing a new report from the Climate Council in Australia entitled “A Fight for Survival: Tackling the climate crisis is key to security in the Blue Pacific.” The report outlines why climate change needs to be front and centre if Australia wants to position itself as a key security partner for Pacific island countries.
Climate Council senior researcher Dr. Wesley Morgan, a lead author of the new report, agrees that the Australian proposal to jointly organise a COP in the Pacific region will require action rather than simple declarations.
“The Pacific’s support for co-hosting a climate summit cannot be assumed,” he said. “If Australia is to work with the Pacific to tackle the climate crisis, Australia needs to take genuine and meaningful action. That means Australia’s new climate targets for 2030 must be a floor for ambition, not a ceiling.”
Morgan added: “Australia needs to do more to move away from coal and gas and provide material support to Pacific island countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, including the unavoidable impacts of loss and damage that island communities are already experiencing.”