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Unity on climate change fails

Friday 11 September 2015 | Published in Regional


PORT MORESBY – Pacific Island leaders have split on how to tackle dangerous climate change at a key regional summit, with Australia and New Zealand declining to back an ambitious target to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C.

After meeting for nine hours in Port Moresby, the leaders of the 16 member Pacific Islands Forum failed to reach a united position on climate change to take to the UN Paris conference in December – one of the stated objectives of the summit.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, resisted calls by Pacific leaders for further action to combat climate change after a group of small low-lying island nations warned they risk being submerged by the rising oceans.

Abbott said Australia and New Zealand had refused to make additional commitments to reducing carbon emissions.

“We can be constructive global citizens when it comes to climate change without clobbering our economy,” he said.

“Australia and New Zealand have already announced very ambitious targets for emissions reduction to take to the Paris conference. I was very pleased to explain to the forum today what Australia is doing, just how ambitious we are being.”

Abbott, considered something of a climate change sceptic, committed in August to reducing carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 – a pledge criticised as “pathetically weak” by climate scientists and environmental groups.

Australia is one of the world’s highest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita.

President Anote Tong of the low-lying nation of Kiribati said while there was a split position between member nations, the final communiqué had been devised to accommodate the more ambitious aspirations of the smaller states.

“It’s not the best outcome we would have liked,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Tong had canvassed the prospect of Australia and New Zealand leaving the regional grouping if they did not help combat climate change by committing to contain global temperature increases to a 1.5°C target.

“We’re simply seeking for the rights of small island states to survive,” said Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu.

“We feel our security is compromised; survival of the people of the Pacific is compromised.”

The small island nation leaders said global temperature increases should be limited to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, rather than the current goal of two degrees, which they believe will leave their islands under water.

“What we are talking about is survival, it’s not about economic development – it’s not politics, it’s survival,” said Kiribati’s Tong.

Following a nine-hour meeting with regional leaders, he said the discussions had been “robust” but Australia and New Zealand were not willing to increase their existing climate change commitments.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key earlier said he was comfortable with his country’s stance and position on climate change.

Key said the outcome of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference was to try and limit temperature increases to 2°C, but that lower lying nations were free to push for a more ambitious target.

Earlier Tong said the Pacific Islands Forum could split over the climate change issue. He said there needed to be a uniform position to take to the global UN climate change COP21 meeting in Paris later this year.

His counterpart from Palau, Tommy Remengesau, echoed his sentiments, saying the time for talk had ended and that urgent action was needed – which would require greater unity.

“This is the challenge facing regionalism – what can we do that brings out the most good for everybody, especially when it comes to matters of life and death and survival, sustainability?

“Those issues are the very reason why there is a Pacific Islands Forum.”

Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi conceded there was frustration among Pacific nations.

“All the Pacific islands are always frustrated because you are not talking about small changes,” he said.

“You are talking about survivability – because, if climate change is not stopped, and the obvious occurs, like a rise in sea level, a lot of the countries in the Pacific would just disappear.”

Niue Premier Toke Talagi said, while there were differences in the various countries’ positions, they were understandable.

“Every country has the right to express their view about climate change. We must accept and respect the fact that each country will have their own differing circumstances in relation to economies and so on,” he said.

“This is the same as Niue so therefore I don’t have any problem with New Zealand and Australia being different.”

Samoa’s Tuilaepa said, despite differences, he did not expect animosity to develop between the various nations.

The meeting of the 16-nation forum was boycotted by the Fijian leader, Frank Bainimarama, who says Australia and New Zealand – the two largest and wealthiest members – have too much influence over the grouping.

The final communiqué from the meeting was not available at the time of going to press although there was a commitment by Australia for an extra $19 million a year to ensure fish­eries could be properly policed.

On West Papua, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said he “respected the sovereignty of Indonesia” although he noted concerns about human rights and announced a “fact-finding mission” to determine the situation on the ground.