16 Aug 2019

Disagreement over climate change action at Pacific Islands Forum

1:06 pm on 16 August 2019

A day-long meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders has ended with disagreement over action against climate change.

Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga at the Pacific Islands Forum

Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga at the Pacific Islands Forum Photo: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat

The leaders of the 18-member countries and territories met for 12 hours in Tuvalu yesterday, with a communiqué and separate statement on climate change finally released after midnight.

The document, released after midnight, includes what's titled the 'Funafuti Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now'.

The main communiqué endorsed a declaration from the small island states calling for a commitment to limit the rise in global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, an immediate phase out of coal, and contributions to the UN Green Climate Fund.

But there was one qualification, which Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga said related to Australia.

"Australia is an important partner in the Forum, and Australia is an important part of the Forum family, likewise everybody else - New Zealand and other countries. So, we tried our best."

It's understood Australia had pushed for the wording on climate change to be watered down.

Mr Sopoaga took a subtle swipe at Australia, while praising New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's support of small island leaders during the negotiations.

"New Zealand was very constructive in its contribution and I think the prime minister was very contributing to a lot of things progressive, perhaps more than other people."

However, Australia did endorse the separate statement urging greater action on climate change.

Enele Sopoaga says the leaders' 12 hour negotiations last night were extremely frank.

"We stressed very strongly during our exchange infact between me and Scott and said you are concerned about saving your economies or your situation in Australia, I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu that was the tone of the discussion."

Ardern says no resistance from Australia

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insists there was no push back from Australia about the Pacific Islands Forum communique, and its statements about climate change.

There has been talk about a qualifier from Australia, but she told reporters that was more about not all of the leaders endorsing a statement from the smaller island states, as not everyone had been part of the discussion.

She said that statement was put together after a meeting of those specific leaders.

"They draft their own statement, that is then included in the communique, and usually noted", Ms Ardern told reporters in Tuvalu.

There has been some discussion about whether all leaders should consider the statement as part of the leaders' retreat, which would give more scope for a fuller endorsement from all leaders, she said.

Last year the small island states' statement was endorsed with qualification, because " not everyone had negotiated or even seen the statement", said Ms Ardern.

She said she couldn't comment on whether the lack of a full endorsement from all leaders fell short of what the smaller states were looking for.

Ms Ardern was also asked about any tensions between Australia protecting its own economy and Pacific leaders looking for action on climate change.

"Every leader in that room came with their own perspectives and domestic agendas... the fact that we have a clear statement around the crisis that climate change represents in this Pacific region, the impact particularly on small island states... we can take to the world stage and advocate upon."

Australian PM 'undermining trust in Pacific'

Meanwhile, Australia's Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, says Prime Minister Morrison is undermining vital relationships and trust in the Pacific.

Senator Wong said while Scott Morrison presides over an increase in Australia's emissions the so-called Pacific "step up" will falter.

She said she suspected the prime minister may have cut other programmes in the region to fund his AU$500million announcement and trust is being eroded.

"The reality is that Pacific Island nations, Pacific leaders have made it clear they don't trust the Morrison government when it comes to climate change. They don't trust them because the Morrison government has failed to act on climate change.

"They don't trust them because the Morrison government continues to deny the reality of climate change. And Pacific Island leaders live with their reality. They live with the reality. It's the biggest threat they face."

Scott Morrison at the Pacific Islands Forum

Scott Morrison at the Pacific Islands Forum Photo: RNZ / Yvette McCullough

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs