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Pacific climate diplomacy – strength in solidarity

Pacific islands leaders
The message was clear and strong from Pacific leaders at COP21 in Paris in December 2015. The world was made aware that the Pacific islands were pressing hard to ensure their survival and limit global warming

| Griffith Asia Insights

BRISBANE - Over the last 10 years, the Pacific small island developing states have demonstrated, through various significant events, how they can prevail in the international climate change negotiations if they work together.

This has been possible also because of distinguished leadership from individuals and countries.

In 2013, Marshall Islands hosted the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum and adopted the visionary RMI Declaration for Climate Leadership.

The Declaration captures the Pacific’s political commitment to be a region of climate leaders and to spark a “new wave of climate leadership” to deliver a safe climate future.

This provided impetus to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) discussions leading to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol as well as providing the blueprint for a fresh universal legal agreement to deal with climate change beyond 2020.

These decisions were embodied in the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, following the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2011.

Members realised the limitation of the ability of the Pacific island states grouping to strongly articulate its own position through the Pacific Islands Forum, as it required respecting the views of Australia and New Zealand, two important members and aid donors to the region.

This was evident from the way the members rallied behind the Pacific Islands Development Forum, set up by Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama as an alternative to the Pacific Islands Forum after Fiji was expelled from the regional body following the 2006 coup.

It was the PIDF that adopted the historical Suva Climate Change Declaration, a watershed moment in terms of most Pacific island nations who had begun rallying around the common theme of stronger climate action and a number of other crucial issues.

These included limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, limiting fossil fuel industries, especially coal, the inclusion of the ‘loss and damage’ concept, and a stronger focus on adaptation.

This was to be a uniting influence for the Pacific islands countries during COP21 in Paris in 2015.

It was significant that the key Pacific leaders at this meeting - president Anote Tong of Kiribati, prime minister Enele Sopoga of Tuvalu and the late Tony DeBrum, foreign minister of Marshall Islands – had been the strongest architects of the Suva Declaration.

In many ways, this eclipsed the climate declaration by the 46th Pacific Islands Forum hosted by Papua New Guinea later in 2015.

The COP21 strategies and tactics were well supported by all the Pacific islands states which were able to prevail on other important international actors, the Alliance of Small Island States, the Group of 77 and China.

This is reflected in the historic Paris Agreement, where leaders such as Sopoaga and DeBrum were intimately engaged in the fine detail of the negotiations which led to its adoption.

Two years later, Fiji was provided the unique opportunity as president of COP23 to make a significant impact on the work towards the Paris Rulebook and to bring to the fore some of the priority issues for the small island states.

There have been varied commentaries on the success of these objectives. Some delegations felt there could have been more consultation and a better articulation of the priority issues, while others even felt that this could have been a truly Pacific presidency rather than a Fijian one.

But the support from the rest of the Pacific island states for the Fijian presidency remained steadfast, if requiring better coordination and deft diplomacy.

The laudable Pacific concept of ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, a way of addressing difficult issues in an inclusive and participatory way, came to prominence.

The proposed facilitative dialogue under the Paris Agreement was renamed ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ in the spirit of this concept.

In climate change discussions, China clearly wields a more positive and progressive image compared to Australia, which is largely regarded as a climate ‘laggard’.

While China continues to demonstrate its achievements in terms of investment in renewable energy and efforts towards a low carbon economy, most Pacific island states regard Australia’s policies as inconsistent with limiting temperature rise to 1.5C.

Because of the quantum of Australia’s development aid to the region, most states have not adopted a more aggressive response to its perceived lack of action and support for one of the most important issues facing the islands.

However there does seem to be a unique space to ‘trade off’ issues. For example, the perceived threat posed by China’s expansionist aspirations in the region could be utilised by the Pacific island states to demand greater action on climate change by Australia.

This is a measure that has been talked about but which has not yet manifested as a collective regional bargaining tool, as bilateral arrangements often take precedence.

The existing regional architecture through the Pacific Islands Forum does not seem to provide any great opportunity to demand more action on climate change from fellow members and large emitters like Australia.

The Pacific Islands Development Forum in recent times seems to have become inconsequential and many Pacific islands countries are rethinking their membership.

In any case, the main financial backer and advocate, Fiji, is now chair of the Pacific Islands Forum and could potentially use this more recognised platform if it was able to do so.

The informal Pacific small island developing states grouping, without the presence of Australia and New Zealand, may provide greater scope to progress some of the key issues on the climate agenda if done strategically.

Using its leverage and solidarity, this grouping could prevail on Australia and indeed other large greenhouse gas emitting nations to take stronger action on reducing emissions at source.

This would entail setting more ambitious emission reduction targets in line with those adopted by the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and the USA, rejoining the Green Climate Fund and contributing more proportionally to financial pledges under the Paris Agreement.


Mahendra-KumarDr Mahendra Kumar is an independent climate change expert working mainly in the Pacific region. He has assisted the Marshall Islands on a number of initiatives such as its electricity roadmap, national strategic plan and served as climate diplomacy adviser. He has represented many Pacific islands countries as part of climate negotiation processes. Dr Kumar has adjunct positions at the University of the South Pacific and the Australian National University.


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