Australia ‘tips petrol on the fire’ at Pacific Islands Forum

Issue 
Cartoon by Alan Moir. Reprinted with permission.

Australia’s bullying behaviour was in full view again at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu, as it ignored pleas to take climate change seriously. It played a dirty role in obstructing agreement on the final communiqué, which was calling for urgent action to stop dangerous climate change.

Phil Glendenning, who attended the PIF for the Edmund Rice Centre, told Green Left Weekly on August 13: “When someone’s house is burning, you’re not being a good neighbour by tipping more petrol on the flames.”

“It doesn’t matter if you have a hose handy while you’re pouring the petrol,” he added, a reference to Australia’s pretence at concern.

Glendenning said Australia had ruled out giving more to help with climate abatement because the $500 million it is promising in the climate change and oceans package “was already allocated in its aid budget”.

He also confirmed that Australia’s penchant for double accounting is causing much concern among Island leaders who want Australia to rule out using “carry-over” carbon credits from the Kyoto Protocol in relation to meeting its Paris emissions target.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that Australia will meet its target has been challenged by many, including Climate Analytics, which estimated in May that using credits that have already been “banked” almost halved Australia’s emissions target.

This is particularly galling for Pacific Island states facing the threat of extinction from climate change. To hear Foreign minister Marise Payne’s remarks that they should feel grateful that Australia is doing all it can, must be even more galling.

Glendenning said Australia has also refused the Pacific Islands’ call for a moratorium on coal. “The positions being taken by the Prime Ministers of Tuvalu, Fiji and other Island states are very clear: Australia is out of step with the Pacific Islands nations by continuing on with its business-as-usual approach to climate change.”

“The greatest threat to the region is climate change. That is why they are asking Australia to declare a moratorium on coal and to increase their commitment to the Paris Accords,” Glendenning said.

The 50th Pacific Islands Forum took place on Funafuti, the biggest atoll out of nine, in one of the world’s smallest countries, Tuvalu. It is just south of the equator. The annual meeting in a purpose-built convention centre that sits near a washed-over causeway, in sight of the island’s narrowest point, brought together leaders from every country in the Pacific as well as Australia and New Zealand. This time, for extra impact, the meeting took place in a venue built on reclaimed land.

The list of big powers attending has grown to include China, Taiwan, Britain and the United States, because as the US-China trade war deepens, this part of the world has become a new strategic hot spot.

However, the big powers are much less interested in the major security issue the Pacific Island nations want action on — climate change — than they are in competing military and trade partnerships.

While Tuvaluan PM Enele Sopoaga and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a former military leader, keep repeating that climate change is “our biggest threat”, this has fallen on deaf ears.

After marathon talks, Australia and New Zealand refused to sign the official communiqué on August 15. In the end, the Tuvalu Declaration was only signed by the Smaller Island States (SIS) group. It emphasised the climate “crisis”, encouraged countries to revise up their emissions reductions targets to limit warming to 1.5°C for the future security of the region, aim for zero carbon emissions before 2050 by rapidly phasing out the use of coal for energy.

Australia pushed hard for a weaker document — the Kainaki II Declaration — with its muted language on climate, the use of coal and a phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. Australia’s junior minister Alex Hawke, a known climate sceptic, had been working hard ahead of the forum to weaken calls to limit global temperatures to 1.5°C of warming.

Pacific Island leaders have been consistently calling for climate action over the past few years, and Glendenning believes that there is a new unity on this subject.

On July 30, Pacific leaders signed the Nadi Bay Declaration calling on countries to “refrain from using carry-over credits as an abatement for the additional Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets”.

It stated its “deep concern” about the lack of “comprehension, concern and commitment” shown by developed nations regarding the “grave consequences that the current and ongoing Climate Crisis poses for vulnerable Small Pacific Island Developing States which contribute negligible amounts of greenhouse gases to this human-caused global problem”.

It repeated the call to limit global warming to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels and appealed to the big powers to come to grips with the science of climate change, in particular, the management of carbon and the ocean’s absorption of heat.

It affirmed that climate change is the Pacific Island nations’ “main security threat” and strongly supported the United Nations' call to countries to end their fossil fuel subsidies. In Australia’s case, that amounts to $14–39 billion annually.

“Australia’s relationship with the Pacific cannot be bought,” Glendenning said. “True partnership means doing everything we can to secure our friends’ survival. This means that Australia needs to listen to Pacific leaders, substantially increase Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions under the Paris agreement and urgently transition out of coal.”

Asked about Australia’s failure to sign on the Tuvalu Declaration, Glendenning told Green Left on August 16: “The bottom line is that Australia has effectively undermined the urgent aspirations and priorities of the Pacific Island nations. It has isolated itself from the region.

“Distributing cash is no longer enough for nations on the cutting edge of climate change. They want to see changes within Australia to reduce emissions that cause climate change. The ‘step up’ Morrison has been talking about looks more like a step backwards.”

[Updated August 16, 2019.]

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