As the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Meeting concludes in the Cook Islands, the 2023 Leader’s Communique offers us great insight as to what leaders have decided are our key regional priorities, and the steps that need to be taken to achieve these priorities.

Unfortunately, while we celebrate progress on several fronts including the historic language on a just transition and a commitment to the establishment of a Pacific Energy Commissioner, fossil fuels continue to go largely unaddressed by Pacific leaders.

Lavetanalagi Seru, Regional Coordinator, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) says “Pacific leaders have failed to address the root cause of the climate crisis, that is to, end the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and commit to phasing-out fossil fuels. Instead, they have allowed the language calling for a just transition towards a Fossil Free Pacific, to be watered down, further prolonging the climate harm and climate-induced Losses and Damages of epic proportions for current and future generations. The fossil fuel interest countries have once again dominated and held Pacific climate ambition to ransom.”

“The Global Stocktake, the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as numerous other studies has emphasised the need for an urgent course correction and Pacific leaders have missed a critical opportunity to lead global efforts on this,” he said.

“The outcomes from this week’s meeting do not resemble the ambition, scale, or urgency required to address the climate crisis and curb the already escalating impacts.”

Australia and Tuvalu undoubtedly delivered the most shocking announcement with the signing of the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty, opening avenues for Tuvaluan citizens to live, study, work and eventually settle in Australia.

“This seismic shift in policy by the Australian government comes across as a broad recognition of the existential threat that climate change poses to Tuvalu, yet, they have not moved to phase out the very thing that fuels the climate crisis, fossil fuels,” said Seru.

“Worse yet, recent analysis shows that Australia currently ranks as the third largest exporter of fossil fuel pollution with further plans to further expand. This is Australia’s true state of affairs.”
“The word on the lips of Pacific civil society is “lacklustre,” he said.

“Yes, a historic outcome, but one predicated on aspirational rhetoric and half-hearted commitments.”

Reactions from Pacific Civil Society:

Dr Maina Talia from Tuvalu Climate Action Network says: “As Australia and Tuvalu enter into the Falepili Treaty offering Tuvaluans the right to resettle in Australia, Australia must be reminded of their climate responsibilities, particularly in phasing out fossil fuel as their highest moral obligation to the region and the world!

“As a Tuvaluan, I should not be silent on this so as the Government of Tuvalu – this treaty shall not be an excuse for Tuvalu not to speak truth to power and hold Australia accountable for their lack of climate action. Our survival and the survival of islands and cultures must not be undermined by the Falepili treaty! Our message is crystal clear Australia needs to do more on climate action!”

Eunice Wotene, Executive Director, Oxfam in the Pacific says: “At the start of this week, we joined Pacific civil society in calling on leaders to commit to a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, we saw Pacific leaders pay mere lip service to this urgent call. The science is clear, the only viable way forward is an unwavering commitment to giving up fossil fuels entirely, a move that will safeguard our land, our ocean and our resources – as our ancestors have done for generations before us. And so it is disheartening to witness the reluctance of some Forum leaders to embrace this imperative and to witness the pleas of Pacific Islanders undermined by the interests of powerful nations with outsized contributions to the climate crisis. Pacific Islanders do not want symbolic gestures or aspirational language – we need concrete commitments and courageous leadership. Anything less is an affront to Pacific communities and a betrayal of our urgent call for climate action.”

Shiva Gounden, Pacific Advisor for Greenpeace Australia Pacific says: “We’re underwhelmed and disappointed with the lack of ambition shown by the Australian government at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum, which takes place against the backdrop of what has been confirmed as the hottest year on record.

“Australia is the third largest fossil fuel exporter in the world and makes an oversized contribution to global emissions. We are alarmingly off course from keeping warming within 1.5 degrees — a figure not just an aspiration, but a lifeline for our Pacific communities who are facing urgent threats to their livelihoods, their culture, and their very existence.

“We want to see real climate action, not empty rhetoric and that means a firm commitment to stop all new fossil fuel approvals and subsidies — money which, rather than lining the coffers of polluting coal and gas corporations, could support Pacific nations to deal with climate impacts and to transition their economies.

“On the road to COP28, Australia must centre Pacific demands on fossil fuels and climate finance.”

Auimatagi Joe Moeono-Kolio, Chief Advisor, Pacific, of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative said:
“Let us be clear: while this statement is historic, it is tinged with a bitter-sweetness. For decades our leaders have called on our neighbour Australia, the world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter, to stand with us. Yet it has taken some 30-odd years to drag Australia to the table and finally acknowledge that it is long past time to transition away from fossil fuels, even though they still insist on adding qualifiers to water down any text on the topic. Today’s decision from our leaders will increase the pressure on Australia and New Zealand to cancel their plans for new coal and gas projects and offshore exploration. If they’re not committing to a science-aligned plan to phase out their fossil fuel exports, they are failing us. These demands will only grow louder. Australia aims to host COP31 and currently has the Pacific “seal of approval” – if they want to keep it, it’s time for them to listen to us more than coal and gas lobbyists.”

Joseph Sikulu, Pacific Managing Director says: “We acknowledge the aspirations to stay on the pathway to 1.5 degrees but aspirations alone will not stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. What we have seen in Rarotonga is the strong-arming of Pacific Island countries with enticing bilaterals and dangerous loopholes. The watering down of a fossil fuel phase-out “within national energy systems” leaves room for Australia’s continued extraction and exporting of coal and gas, disregarding the role of fossil fuels as the primary cause of devastating climate impacts in the Pacific.

“While the historic Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty is a recognition of the accelerating effects of climate change in the region, it is a band-aid solution that should not distract from the fact that countries like Australia are fueling this crisis. By continuing to subsidize, extract, and export fossil fuels, developed countries in our region stall the just transition to renewable energy systems and lock us into further destruction.”

Media Contacts: Dylan Kava, Communications Officer, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network | +679 9061989 (Fiji / GMT+12)