SPERI spotlight on the UN climate summit IV

Climate diplomacy in the Pacific region

Greg FryLike Fiji’s experience in the Rugby World Cup, the Pacific island states drew a ‘tough pool’ in their first step on the road to global negotiations on climate change in Paris.

In order to forge a Pacific regional position, they have had to ‘negotiate’ with two Annex 1 states (OECD), which are among the world’s biggest carbon emitters per capita among the industrialised states.  This is because, for historical reasons, Australia and New Zealand are members of the Pacific Islands Forum.  Forum decisions are made by consensus, which means that Australia and New Zealand have an effective veto on the setting of an ambitious mitigation target as part of any Pacific Islands Forum declaration on climate change action.  What’s more, they have exercised this veto several times over the past twenty years, most notably prior to COP 15 in Copenhagen.

The key summit for negotiating the Pacific island position was held in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea in September.  The Australian and New Zealand leaders made it very clear before they left for the meeting that they had already announced what they considered to be ambitious emissions targets and that to shift any further would impact negatively on their economies.

The problem is that these targets were anything but ambitious in terms of the level required to make a serious difference on global warming.  For example, the Australian Government emission target of 26–28 per cent is well below the 40–60 per cent target recommended by its own Climate Change Authority as necessary to keep warming below 2 degrees. Indeed, the Chairman of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, John Gummer, labelled Australia’s targets ‘sad’ and a ‘disgrace’.  He has argued that ‘Australia is going to go to the Paris talks with one of the least ambitious targets’.

Prior to the Moresby meeting, the Pacific island leaders had made it very clear in a series of meetings without Australia and New Zealand present that their shared position was for an uncompromising demand for a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels.  The most prominent of these meetings was a three-day meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Suva in August that culminated in the Suva Declaration on Climate Change.  This also called for 5-yearly reviews of mitigation targets to adapt to changing science; ‘new, additional, adequate, and predictable’ climate finance; special financial assistance for those already ‘experiencing existential threats from climate change’; and loss and damage as a stand-alone section in the Paris Agreement.

There was no way the Moresby meeting could bridge such irreconcilable differences between Australia and New Zealand, on the one hand, and the Pacific island states, on the other.  Although the eventual Pacific Islands Forum Declaration on Climate Action attempted to paper over the differences with clever ambiguity, the bottom line is that the Declaration does not represent the shared position of the Pacific island states.  It acknowledges the threat posed to low-lying island states if warming goes above 1.5 degrees, but it does not call for this to be the threshold commitment in the Paris Agreement.  Rather, it endorses ‘the global temperature goal established at the Lima COP’ in 2014.  This was not 1.5; it was ‘1.5 or 2’.  Nor does the Declaration call for regular (5-yearly) review of emission targets to allow for more ambitious efforts to develop over time.  It supports loss and damage but only as part of the ‘outcomes’, not as part of the Agreement itself.  Finally, although it supports access to climate finance, it is not ‘new, additional, and predictable’ climate finance.

Despite being presented by the Forum Secretariat as a cohesive statement representing ‘the Pacific position’ in relation to Paris, the participating leaders did not see it this way.   Kiribati President Anote Tong’s reported view at the post-Forum press conference was that the leaders had ‘agreed to disagree’; whilst New Zealand Prime Minister John Key commented that ‘we’re all going to Paris; we’re all going to argue different things’.

The Forum Secretary-General, Dame Meg Taylor, tried to take a more positive view, arguing that the Pacific island leaders will have to ultimately negotiate with Annex 1 states in Paris anyway, so why not have hard negotiations now?  However, this argument overlooks three crucial points.  First, it ignores the reality that negotiation in this regional pool is with Annex 1 states which are also major providers of economic assistance to individual Pacific island countries, as well as providing 95 per cent of the core and regular budget of the Pacific Islands Forum.  Second, it glosses over the fact that early compromise in a regional pool on the key negotiating objective of the 1.5 warming target compromises potential global coalition-building with other like-minded states in the weeks prior to Paris.  For example, the 54-member African Union (AU) and the 40-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) have committed to an objective of 1.5 as the global warming target and thus form obvious negotiating partners.  Finally, an ambiguous Forum Declaration that tries to satisfy opposite ends of the climate policy spectrum does not actually provide the Forum Secretariat with a diplomatic strategy at Paris.

But all is not necessarily done.  The Forum negotiation could have been a knock-out blow to any serious diplomatic positioning for the Pacific on the road to Paris, as it was on the road to Copenhagen.  However, this is not the case this time around because of the existence of an alternate diplomatic system which has developed outside the Forum since 2009 – precisely to address this problem.  At its centre is the Pacific Small Islands Developing States grouping (PSIDS) which comprises Pacific island state ambassadors (without Australia and New Zealand) working collectively in the United Nations system.  There is also in existence the Fiji-led Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), which has already contributed effectively by providing the arena for extensive consultation, agreement on key objectives and discussion of the best means to implement diplomatic strategies on Pacific climate policy.  The outcomes were expressed in the Suva Declaration, which will provide the guiding positions for PSIDS in their deliberations in Paris.

There are also to be preliminary meetings of PSIDS in New York, with a view to setting up a Pacific task force to organise strategy before and during the Paris COP.  Fiji has also made climate policy leadership a priority in its foreign policy and is endeavouring to negotiate with others at the UN, in the Commonwealth and with G77 member countries in the final run-up to Paris.  In other words, unlike Lima, there will be serious PSIDS caucusing prior to AOSIS meetings in order to maximise influence on AOSIS joint positions and feed into wider LDC, African Union and G77 positions.

In marked contrast, Australia and New Zealand, as Annex 1 countries with commitments to unambitious climate action, will ally at Paris not with their fellow Pacific region states, but instead with similar high-emitting developed countries.