Pacific leaders leave no doubt on differences with Australia over climate pledges
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Pacific leaders leave no doubt on differences with Australia over climate pledges

Australia has signed on to an agreement that labels climate change the “single greatest threat” to Pacific island nations but has also been outed by one neighbour as having pushed behind the scenes to water down language on emissions pledges.

The finale of the Pacific Islands Forum has also underscored the increasing intensity of competition for strategic influence in the region, with host leader, Nauruan President Baron Waqa, doubling down on his criticism of the Chinese delegation leader’s behaviour earlier in the week and warning he would raise the matter in the United Nations.

Children wade through water at high tide in the village of Abarao on the Pacific nation of Kiribati, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Children wade through water at high tide in the village of Abarao on the Pacific nation of Kiribati, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Photo: The New York Times

Leaders on Wednesday night, including Foreign Minister Marise Payne jointly stated that “climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of the Pacific people” and acknowledged the importance of “immediate urgent action to combat climate change”.

But Australia apparently refused to endorse a push by smaller island states that fear being submerged by rising sea levels to demand countries around the world “urgently accelerate the achievements of greenhouse gas reductions to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius”.

Island nation Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga made it clear Australia was the outlier on a push to commit to more climate action. Asked by a journalist whether the name of the resistant nation obliquely referred to in the forum’s communique began with the letter “A”, he said: “You’re very, very observant in that. I was hoping nobody would pick it up but it’s there. That speaks volumes.”

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Mr Sopoaga stated bluntly that, “yes, there have been attempts to tone down the language on major emitters to implement [pledges]”.

Mr Sopoaga said he was generally “very happy” with the language in the communique, however, saying there was “a connotation between the lines that they should step up for more robust, ambitious” action.

Otherwise small nations such as Tuvalu would “go down” by 2030, he said.

“Our grandchildren will still be growing up and the islands of Tuvalu … would be submerged.”

The meeting follows the recent leadership tumult in Australia during which the Coalition government ditched any pathway to reaching its Paris accord target of cutting its greenhouse emissions by 26 percent by 2030.

Australia has committed to a number of climate related measures during the forum, including contributing to a $1.5 billion “resilience facility” to shore up island nations against the effects of global warming.

Mr Sopoaga said there had been “concern about the reference to the United States” - apparently referring to Australia and New Zealand’s refusal to join a call by other Pacific nations for the United States to rejoin the Paris agreement.

“We cannot leave the US out,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Chinese envoy stormed out of a session after demanding to speak ahead of Mr Sopoaga, provoking fury from host Mr Waqa.

Nauru is one of the six Pacific nations that recognises Taiwan and therefore does not have diplomatic relations with China.

Mr Waqa, in a final shot at Beijing, said some participants had tried to “disrupt and destabilise the group”.

Broadening his attack, he said that “we are seeing a lot of big countries coming in and sometimes buying their way through the Pacific”.

“Some are very, very aggressive. Some are extremely aggressive even to the point that they just tread all over us. That’s how they do things. How arrogant some of these people are.”

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House